Phantasm’s performances of the 6-part viol consorts of John Jenkins (1592-1678) were the subject of a feature review and interview with director Laurence Dreyfus in Fanfare 30:2. At the end of the review, I noted with satisfaction that Phantasm was about to record the companion 5-part consorts. Well, here they are after only a relatively short time. In his note with the new disc – a characteristic combination of enlightened scholarship and overflowing enthusiasm – Dreyfus suggests that even more than the 4- and 6-part works, the 5-part consorts find Jenkins at the height of his compositional powers. He cites particularly the way in which Jenkins teases both player and listener with his obsession with displaced accents set against the prevailing beat, the most extreme example being Fantasy 15. Here Jenkins starts with an extrovert folk-dance – Dreyfus calls it a country fiddle tune – that develops into a near-anarchic riot of subversive rhythmic chaos. Jenkins is frequently described as a conservative composer, but there is absolutely nothing conservative about this music.
As with the 6-part fantasies, their counterparts here are all through-composed, but generally pass through several clearly defined sections, the mood of the opening frequently returning for the final episode. Just occasionally, a single mood will prevail throughout. This occurs in shorter, major mode pieces such as No. 1 or No. 16, the latter thrusting ever forward with a playful exuberance where one senses the composer delighting in the contrapuntal interplay between the instruments. Neither are Jenkins’s surprises restricted to rhythm. No. 9, for example, opens with one of the composer’s favorite three-note mottos before three times introducing a striking modulation we expect to lead us to slower moving music. Only on the third occasion is this finally achieved, with a commensurate move to a more serious vein. For sheer variety of mood, Fantasia 7, the longest, is exceptional. It opens with slow moving, dark-hued music that reminds us of Jenkins’s love of rich sonorities, its development gradually entering brighter territory and seemingly expanding naturally like an unfurling flower. Then comes a passage of imitative polyphony, in itself contrasted with a sustained homophonic passage of great harmonic beauty. Finally, a lively galliard-like passage leads to a few bars return of the opening mood. All this has been achieved in a fraction over four minutes.
Not all is as immediately compelling. At times one senses the mastery of counterpoint, deployed over a relatively small gamut, takes precedence over melodic interest. This can sometimes leave the listener flailing for an aural lifejacket, something to grasp, as I found with Fantasy 12. But for relief at such times we can always turn to the three pavans, which like their 6-part relatives introduce us to a calmer, less contrapuntal world in which expressivity takes precedence, one that often probes the vein of melancholy never far from the surface in 17th-century English music.
As with the earlier recording, Dreyfus has chosen to omit the organ part, a possibly controversial decision for which he put up a strongly argued case in the interview; I can only say that it does not worry me any more than it did with the previous disc. Otherwise there is nothing controversial about performances that are executed with such technical skill, such spontaneity, the sense of responding to each moment in the music’s course that is such a feature of all Phantasm’s performances. Here one need only listen to the calm luminescence achieved in the opening of Fantasia 17, or the thrusting sturdiness of Fantasia 3 to be aware that they are truly masters of all they survey. The sound is of the best kind: so natural and unobtrusive that you don’t even think about it. At present there is no competition for the complete 5-part consorts, so the disc is self- recommending. Those who would like to try a different approach, or would prefer a cross-section of Jenkins’s consort works are reminded of the discs of Fretwork (not reviewed), or the Ensemble Jérôme Hanaï (28:5). But no real enthusiast will pass on this.