Clever fellow, Byrd. Evidence of his legendary ability to survive as a Catholic and flourish at court in Elizabethan and Jacobean times seems not restricted to his sacred vocal music but pervades even his relatively little-known instrumental consort music. Only two of these works were printed during his lifetime (the Fantasias a 4 No 1 and a 6 No 3). The rest – an assortment of pieces with Latin titles that Laurence Dreyfus calls “polyphonic enhancement of devotional hymns”, In nomines that he aptly describes as “mystical consort rhapsodies”, mercurial fantasias for three to six viols, some of which quote popular ballads, intricate variations on yet other tunes of the day, and pairs of pavans and galliards – have waited more than four centuries to receive the collective care and attention that this new recording by Phantasm affords them. Building on the scholarly work of Oliver Neighbour, Laurence Dreyfus, founder-leader of Phantasm, has assembled 26 consort pieces by Byrd, preferring to contrast one with another rather than ordering them chronologically or by instrumental forces, while still providing listeners with the means to reorder them as they please. The presented order is undeniably a connoisseur’s treat but possibly challenging for the uninitiated.
The playing is quite simply divine. Phantasm have long been known for their musical precision, to which they bring to this music a warm, woody, soft-edged articulation that suits it very well. The pacing of individual pieces and sections within them seems particularly sensitively judged and Byrd’s textures sublimely balanced. Thanks, too, to Linn’s engineers, we are able to experience with sparkling clarity Byrd’s remarkable chamber music legacy.