William Byrd went distinctly further than the previous generation (that of the pioneer Christopher Tye) in the complexity of his writing for consort. At the start of the 1560s, access to this kind of music was still the province of the court, some theatres and aristocratic circles, and only began attracting amateurs at the beginning of the next century. That’s why Byrd assigns to the viols polyphonic hymns and In Nomines on a cantus firmus (‘mystic rhapsodies’ in Laurence Dreyfus’s striking turn of phrase), but turns his back on these rather quickly: what please him thereafter are regular sets of variations on dances or popular tunes (grounds) and the free reign of fantasies (for 3, 4, 5, or 6 viols). In short, he writes the same types of pieces as for the keyboard, exploiting all the while the polyphonic potential of the consort.
Newly assembled on a CD filled literally to the brim, the result is thrilling. Laurence Dreyfus – viol player and musicologist of the first rank – has taken care to alternate the various styles. And his partners – the very same since the founding of Phantasm in 1994 – ensure that not a single phrase or counter-melody goes unnoticed. The score is sculpted by the tip of the bow and humanised thanks to a moderate use of vibrato. This playing avoids extremes: surely the only way to render this highly stylised repertoire. But at the same time the flame is always kept ablaze, allowing one to follow the ‘circulatory flow’ of ideas in the counterpoint. Magnificent in this regard are the variations on Browning, whose taut rhythms are magisterially sharpened at the end, as well as the surprising – and savage – appearance of Greensleeves smack in the middle of a Fantasy a6.
The sound of the ensemble, rich and sonorous, isn’t restrained by that homogeneity of sonority which others take to be the highest value of a consort of viols. This set of complete works is a fitting match to the Consort Songs by Byrd recorded by Phantasm with Ian Partridge and Geraldine McGreevy (Simax, 1998), and reminds us of what separates a good disc of Early music from an exceptional success: that each track be a forest bustling with life.