The Strad Issue: January 2011
Description: Performances of Byrd’s viol music that glow with subtle colouring
Musicians: Phantasm
Composer: Byrd

The courtly art of viol consort playing gave composers in Elizabeth I’s reign a welcome chance to write free from liturgy or poetic texts. William Byrd composed for viols for more than 40 years, producing a whole range of fantasias, In nomines, dances and sacred hymns, which Phantasm’s director Laurence Dreyfus has made it his business to research and record. The consort, Oxford-based but international in membership, plays with a warm, glowing sound like Chartres stained glass, gently coaxing the rich colours from their instruments.

Textures rarely vary, so at first the tracks sound rather similar and, with only small pauses left between each piece, it’s easy to be unaware that you’ve moved on to the next. But focus in and there are treasures to be found. The plainsong tenor line threaded through so many of the pieces becomes audible, as do the imitative entries. The players’ enjoyment of the jaunty cross rhythms and the light and skilful interchange between lines is palpable and the hymns have a movingly sweet, still devoutness.

Whereas Concordia for the nearest rival in the repertoire chooses a much brighter, more closely recorded sound for Fretwork, which has the treble more to the fore, Phantasm’s sound is more homogenous, focusing on the consort sound rather than highlighting individual instruments.