Orlando Gibbons composed some 35 works for viol consort. Of those nearly half are short, multi-sectional fantasias (or fantazias), of which nine for three-part consort were published between 1619 and 1621 (authorities vary on the date) with a dedication to Edward Wraye, a friend of Gibbons's, and a Groom of James I's bedchamber. There is also a set of six-part fantasias, works that for their profound expressive depth, and contrapuntal richness stand not only at the heart of the composer's consort output, but also among the finest works of the repertoire.
Unsurprisingly, the six-part fantasias well suit Phantasm's highly personal way with English consort music, a style that above all seeks to search out a level of lyrical eloquence often not sought by the more restrained traditions of English viol consort playing. While I would have no wish to abandon that tradition, Phantasm have frequently shown that they can, in comparison with groups such Fretwork or Concordia, often throw valuable fresh light on the music they play. Such is, I think, the case here and one need only hear the profound inner world Phantasm create at such a passage as the start of the last of the six-part fantasias to be conscious of it. Is this deep introspection a manifestation of the melancholy that so often pervades the music of Gibbons (and so many of his 17th-century English colleagues), or is it a reflection of profoundly thoughtful serenity? The ambiguity is left unanswered in Phantasm's performance, and the question unasked by Concordia, their main rivals in this music. How illuminating Phantasm are, too, in No. 3, making much of the high lying dissonance of the opening, bringing extraordinary expression to the sighing motif that develops from them, and screwing up the increasing agitation as the fantasia develops. But all the performances of these utterly rewarding pieces are shot through with moments of revelation.
The three-part fantasias are more abstract, less intense works in which one senses the composer reveling in his skill as a contrapuntist, while the Pavan and Galliard a 6 show Gibbons in more extrovert mood, the Pavan unusually elegant and poised, the Galliard robustly playful. The variations on the popular ballad "Go from my window" call for a virtuosity eagerly exploited by Phantasm, who put on a dazzling display of the art of division playing.
Laurence Dreyfus, Phantasm's leader would not be Laurence Dreyfus if he did not introduce some controversial element into the program, which here takes the form of including a number of transcriptions of works that lie outside the canon of Gibbons's consort works. His notes amusingly relate the horror of certain academics when they discovered Dreyfus was planning to include transcriptions of several keyboard works. In fact, of course, there is absolutely nothing inauthentic about transcribing this period's instrumental or vocal music (the two contrasting anthems come off very well here, while Gibbons himself made it clear that his famous madrigal "The silver swan" was suitable for either voices or viols). Moreover, Phantasm's perceived 'naughtiness' is responsible for one of the highlights of the disc, a performance of the magnificent Pavan Lord Salisbury that realizes overwhelmingly all the work's melancholic intensity.
Anyone wanting a complete set of Gibbons's consort works will have to turn to Concordia's splendid performances on Metronome (METCD 1033 and METCD 1039), discs not reviewed in Fanfare and which may be difficult to obtain in the USA. Their performances are a little 'purer', slightly less high voltage than those of Phantasm, but of high quality. There may indeed be certain moods when I would find them closer to the spirit of the repertoire, but Phantasm's passionately lyrical Gibbons demands to be heard by anyone remotely interested in the music.