The viol music of Orlando Gibbons (1583 - 1623) represents the major link in the chain of string consort music between the Elizabethan generations of Byrd and Dowland and the Caroline masters such as William Lawes. Though affected by developments taking place on the Continent, the tradition which culminated in Purcell's Fantasias, was quintessentially English. The music, often in five or six parts, was generally abstract in nature. It could be playful, but was more inclined to melancholy or at least sobriety. Such pieces were probably composed for talented and presumably wealthy amateurs. It is not known if Gibbons himself played viols. He doubtless became acquainted with the new European manner through the expatriate Italian Ferrabosco, the Italian-descended Lupo and the pseudo-Italian Giovanni Coprario (born John Cooper), all of whom were viol players. But his consorts nevertheless represent all that is appealing about the English tradition. They are rich and complex, intimate but not esoteric. Gibbons's teasing counterpoint, bold use of dissonance and inexhaustible invention make these exceptionally rewarding works in which to immerse oneself.
Phantasm have supplemented Gibbons's authentic works for viol consort - notably the fantasias for six and three parts and two In Nomines - with their own very convincing arrangements for some of the composer's best keyboard pieces and, more speculatively, of two of his church anthems. Led by the American scholar and musician Laurence Dreyfus all the members of Phantasm are distinguished soloists in their own right. But they combine to from an ensemble that is perfectly suited to the consort repertory. Their individual voices and instrumental timbres are not blended into a reedy buzz, as can happen with viol ensembles. Rather they appear as distinct participants in a seamless conversation, neither too self-effacing nor too idiosyncratic. Phantasm's subtle tonal shadings, varied articulation and rhythmic buoyancy seem to draw even more from this music than Concordia. Compared with Phantasm, Concordia's recording of the six-part Fantasias seems just a little undercharacterized. But these are subjective distinctions. The real disadvantage of the Concordia recording is not the viol works, but the unappealing singing by Rachel Elliot of some of Gibbons's consort songs.
Avie's recording is immediate and vivid, but I found it a little too close when listening on headphones. Dreyfus's notes are full of interest, but I, for one, could have done without his lengthy excursus on Glenn Gould as a Gibbons enthusiast. Surely we have moved beyond needing 'real musicians' to tell us when Early Music has value.