Beyond the occasional madrigal, we haven’t heard much of John Ward’s music on CD. As in its own day, it has until now remained the preserve of amateurs. Ward was a Jacobean “gentleman” who published a single collection of madrigals in 1613 and left a body of consort music for four to six viols along with ayres for two bass viols, surviving in numerous 17th-century manuscripts, which Thomas Mace referred to as “very great eminence and worth”.
Phantasm, in recording the works for five and six viols, has given us what we may hope is the first of two recordings of Ward’s complete instrumental music. As an ensemble, the members of Phantasm perform with authority and exceptional musical awareness. They achieve a remarkable blend of instrumental timbres and breathe as one with their bows. The results on this disc are stunning; but, equally, the recording successfully captures individual voices, so much so that the listener feels almost part of the ensemble.
If not of the first rank, Ward’s consort music is nevertheless well crafted and genuinely engaging. Most movements are broadly in three contrasting sections, the textures now imitative, then homophonic, often antiphonal (VdGS3 and DvGS7) and on occasion rhetorical (VdGS12). His themes are cleverly syncopated more often than not; the tonality deftly shifts between major and minor. His treatment of the cantus firmus in the three In nominees is masterful. But, perhaps best of all, are the chromatic passages positioned for maximum affect (VdGS2, 3, 7, 9), which leave the listener longing for more.