Now firmly established as the most excitingly innovative viol consort playing today, Phantasm has recently added further to the many laurels it has already garnered by picking up a Gramophone award for their disc of Gibbons consort music, a CD that included high-voltage, passionately lyrical performances that I suggested should be heard by anyone remotely interested in the music (Fanfare 28:2). That disc raised a few eyebrows by including transcriptions of some of Gibbons’s keyboard works, but that’s nothing compared to what Phantasm has done on its latest release, which includes nothing less than a complete transcription of William Byrd’s Mass for Four Voices.
This was obviously going to be a big talking point when I phoned Phantasm’s treble violist and director Laurence Dreyfus, but first I wanted to know what lay behind the disc’s intriguing title, “Four Temperaments.” Surely, Carl Nielsen hasn’t got in the act as well, I asked Dreyfus. “Well, actually I was thinking more of George Balanchine,” came back the reply amid laughter. “More seriously, I thought it would be interesting to take a classical idea that was still current in the 16th century, a way of talking about personality. Although it’s a crude measure on the one hand, the ancients already realized that it had connotations for medicine and psychology. So it seemed a valid way of focusing on the different emotional worlds of the composers featured on the disc.” I observed that the concept in fact comes over very clearly in the selection of works: the ordered or phlegmatic world of Alfonso Ferrabosco the elder contrasted with the at times choleric unruliness of Robert Parsons, whose music at times seems almost out of control. “To a certain extent, yes, but he does mange to exert control over his material, although there are times when he allows that irrationality to come to the fore with quite dazzling ‘cross-relations’ that are at times outrageously dissonant. Parsons was a great discovery, an amazing personality. He’s someone I want to explore more.”
Another work that fits in with the temperaments idea is A Solfing song a 5, the optimistic, sanguine Thomas Tallis piece with which the disc opens. It was unfamiliar to me, and I’d been unable to trace it in the New Grove worklist. I asked Dreyfus about the work. He seemed puzzled. “It’s certainly included in Musica Britannica under Tallis’s name, and I believe it has connections with a chanson text. (Since my conversation with Dreyfus, which had to take place very shortly after I received a test pressing of the CD, further investigation has revealed that the work is only attributed to Tallis, which doubtless explains its absence from the worklist.)
The inclusion of the transcription of the Byrd Mass for Four Voices, one of the great masterpieces of sacred vocal polyphony, as the centerpiece of the disc will doubtless come as a surprise to many. I asked Dreyfus to explain the motivation behind the project. “We started learning it several years ago, because it is a work I was always obsessed with, and I was fascinated to see how it would work as chamber music. It seemed to me that when the music is conducted it doesn’t always allow the independence of line to come out, and it’s such marvelous polyphony. And there are so many crossovers between the style of writing and consort music. For example, before the Sanctus we placed a Ferrabosco In nomine that begins in exactly the same way. You have this relationship between sacred vocal polyphony and consort music that is a very intimate kind of thing. You end up hearing both the consort music and the Mass differently, because Byrd applies real compositional power to trap the striking allegorical images. The fact that so much of it works as beautiful instrumental music made it for me a very spiritual way of doing it, a kind of 16th-century version of Haydn’s Seven Last Words.”
One of the most notable features of the performance is the manner in which the music seemed to take on a greater degree of lyricism than is usually the case with vocal performances. I wondered if this was just the natural effect of hearing it on viols, or whether it was part of a deliberate interpretational decision. “I suppose it might have something to do with the fact that we were of course only using one voice to a part, as opposed to the usual choral rendition, where you get such an amazing blend. But if you think about the whole 16th-century tradition, in a way it’s moving away from that fascination with gorgeous block harmony toward a very intimate style. I think this Mass is part of that movement toward intimacy, a work that was perhaps celebrated in a secret Jesuit chapel at the Petre House or something like that. There is a very real lyricism built into the music, which perhaps the viols tend to bring out.”
Another thing that intrigued me about the transcription was to wonder how conscious the players had been of the text while playing the Mass. “We had the text underlay in front of us all the time, having previously talked it through in very great detail. That applied especially to the Gloria and Credo, where you have so many contrasting worlds. It’s a fascinating text when you look at the historical references, the narrative bits, and the meditative sections. . . . While we were sitting playing it we were trying to capture that experience, allowing the words to inspire us in the same way as would be the case if you had a set of wonderful Renaissance paintings in front of you.” Such careful preparation, and textural awareness is certainly born out by the clear impression that there is a definite intensification at certain key points. I suggested to Dreyfus that the arrival of “Qui sedes” in the Gloria is an example where one is very conscious of a dramatic moment having arrived. “Absolutely. And of course, when you’re singing it you want to do something there to evoke the powerful image contained in those words.”
It is obvious from what Dreyfus had been saying that playing the transcription had proved a unique experience for the consort members. I asked if he could explain what he felt they had learned about the work playing it on viols. “Well, it was partly some very simple things, like seeing it and playing it in the original key. You can’t just use one of the existing editions, because so many are transposed for choir. And then examining the complexity of the lines, how they both look and feel like so much consort music, and then you get these crystallized moments like the C# that shows up in “Crucifixus.” It is so clear. I think what we learned is the kind of Affekt, to take a Baroque word, the kinds of image, or phantasms, if you will, that show up in the music. They help you, giving a sense of discovery that can be applied to similar gestures in other music. I think when you have a text there is a closer link to the composer’s thinking.”
In so far as I could tell, working from the Fellowes score, the performance of the Mass is an exact transcription—apart from one or two places in Agnus Dei, where it sounded as if a few long notes had been broken down into shorter repeated-note patterns. However, Dreyfus assured me that this is not the case, and that the whole performance is a literal transcription. (Needless to say, a further audition confirmed that he is quite correct.) “In fact, it was rather the opposite, because one of the things we were worried about was repeated notes that would have been tied over in consort music, but we felt we should articulate them because there was an impulse from the syllable that works in a metrical rhythmic way.”
The idea of interpolating the In nomines (a form itself originally derived from part of the text of Benedictus) between the movements of the Mass was obviously an inspired idea. As Dreyfus observed, “in liturgical use, the Mass Ordinary would never be heard in sequence. There are a variety of interpolations and the idea of going off into another instrumental world, especially one that lightens the texture, seemed to me highly appropriate.” It is indeed, and just one example of the enormous amount of dedication and thought that has so very obviously gone into this project.
Even after reading the above, there may still be those who find the idea of a viol consort performing a Mass to be a little odd, possibly even disturbing. It’s as well therefore to make the point that there is nothing intrinsically unhistorical about doing so. In the 16th century vocal polyphony, both sacred and secular, was frequently transcribed for instrumental performance, there being in fact no need to look further than Byrd himself, who in the Cantiones sacrae published jointly with Tallis in 1575 described the contents as suitable for “voices or viols.” That example, cited by Laurence Dreyfus in his notes, is just one of many where the option is clearly available.
Among a number of thought-provoking issues that came to mind in the wake of hearing this stimulating disc is that of context. When we listen to vocal performances of the Byrd Masses today, we are in fact already at a huge distance from their original performance conditions, which were almost certainly part of secretive celebrations of Mass held by small groups of recusants, ever mindful of being disturbed by Protestant servants of Elizabeth I. Not for us, as we listen in comfort in a church or at home, the ever-fearful anticipation of rude banging on the door and arrest. The point of this being, of course, that since we are already inescapably far from recreating original performance conditions, the transposition of a Mass adds only a further, new dimension.
The faithfulness of the transcription and its keen adherence to the texts clearly emerged in my conversation with Dreyfus, in the course of which I’ve already drawn attention to the manner in which key moments of rhetoric are brought out in a way that I think will not have been possible without an intimate familiarity with the text. One example has already been cited, but there are many others: the repose of “Domine Deus” (Gloria), the luminescence of the Gloria’s “Qui tollis” (one of many passages in which Byrd provides textural variety by reducing the number of parts), the quiet dignity that settles over the music in the “Ex Maria” passage of Credo, and the dramatic arrival of the ascending scalar figure at “Et resurrexit,” all of which bear eloquent witness to the sensitive awareness of the approach. The sublime Agnus Dei is a case apart, perhaps the one place one might feel controversy is being courted. It is taken at a tempo that would surely be beyond the daring of any choir or vocal ensemble (the timing is 4:07; by contrast the Tallis Scholars take 3:15, the Cardinall’s Musick, my overall first choice for the work, 3:19), yet such is the extraordinary innigkeit of the playing that reservations are swept aside.
Agnus Dei presented Dreyfus with another problem, about which he told me he had thought long and hard. As I suggested to him, the last thing one normally wants after its final, ineffable move to the light of the final tierce de Picardie is to hear any more music. Phantasm’s director agreed, but has come up with a brilliantly convincing solution in the shape of Parsons’s four-part Ut re mi fa sol la, a piece that opens with a mood that uncannily preserves that of Byrd’s Agnus, before proceeding on a course that will lead us a million miles from it.
The natural concentration here has been on the Byrd Mass, but it would be remiss not to mention at least some of the other music included to frame its performance. The Tallis (or not, as the case may be) is a delight, its flowing, confident polyphony here expressively pointed up by the playing. Byrd’s five-part Prelude and Ground based on the popular “Good night” ground bass, is a tour de force of fluctuating moods that inspires some dazzling division-playing. The originality (not to say eccentricity) of Robert Parsons was noted in the conversation, and can be heard at its most striking in the grinding bass dissonances that open A Song of Mr. Robert Parsons (surely a wry title?). It’s exciting music that suits Phantasm’s intensity to a tee, and one hopes Dreyfus’s discovery of Parsons will inspire him to program more of his music; there are, for example, four more In nomines in addition to the one recorded here.
In the final analysis, the question is who will benefit from or respond to this unique treatment of Byrd’s sacred masterpiece? Not, I think, those who do not know the vocal version, unless perhaps they belong to that rather strange breed that simply does not like any form of singing. They will certainly be rewarded by characteristically warm and emotional viol consort-playing, superbly executed. But the greatest enlightenment will surely come to those with an open mind, and real familiarity with the Mass. For them this sensitive, reverential (in the best possible meaning of the word) performance will cast new illumination on a familiar treasure. I would urge strongly all who feel they fall into this category to hear this truly remarkable disc.