Those who, on our side of the Channel, imagine the interpretation of English music by the English as a vast, featureless landscape, will find themselves greatly mistaken: professional standards apart, no groups differ more in their approach to Gibbons, the ‘Batchelor of Music, than the two leading figures of the new aristocracy of the Elizabethan viol consort, Concordia (Diapason d’or for the second volume of their complete Gibbons) and Phantasm (Diapason d’or for their Purcell Fantasies). The fascinating needlepoint woven by Concordia is answered by the fiery pleasure found in Phantasm’s music-making: vigorous attacks, chiselled cadences, heavily marked triplets, unremittingly sustained bow-strokes, and fleeting timbres all seem geared to reconcile the magnificence of the theatre and the pomp of the English court with the spontaneous intimacy of the ‘domestic’ consort – home sweet home!
Nonetheless, even if Wendy Gillespie (Treble 2) tries to tone down the excitement by sweetening the exemplary phrasing driven with precision by the ‘consort-master’ Laurence Dreyfus, the virtual dearth of ornamentation proves at times a little frustrating, and some triplet figures are frankly a bit ‘border line (Track 9, 4’30”). Yet several explanations given us by Dreyfus himself, an eminent musicologist and author of a brilliant statement of intention, are crafted with such flair and style that they furnish a splendid guide for the listener: ‘The brevity of some imitative points, such as in the middle of Fantasia IV, creates a dazzling array of lightening flashes, with each strike visible if never predictable in its location’. Or: ‘The lamenting descent meets its inverted alter ego, and from then on, rising dactyls soar upwards, creating an illusion of continuously ascending spirals which exhaust themselves only at the rapturous final cadence’.
Yet there’s the rub: in the (too) generous acoustic of the chapel of Merton College Oxford, the spirals toil to take flight under such demonstrative bowing just when Concordia amble onto the dizzy heights of illusion. But when Dreyfus and his colleagues allow their lines to calm down, as in the Silver Swan and the Pavan Lord Salisbury (transcribed by Dreyfus), we discover in the first the most tender-hearted of musics, and in the second a kindred spirit to the swoons of Dowland’s Lachrymae.