Phantasm make Byrd take wing at Wigmore Hall ★★★★☆
21 February 2018
By Ivan Hewett
If Mahlerian excess and Beethovenian excitement are what light your fire, the pleasures of a consort of viols – six antique stringed instruments ranging from treble to bass – might seem just too quietly refined. Add the fact that this concert was entirely devoted to Elizabethan composer William Byrd, a man “naturally disposed towards gravity and piety” as a contemporary observer put it, and you have a recipe for something that could surely only appeal to a handful of fervent devotees, like those obscure Spanish artists who paint only small still-lifes of cabbages and wine-jugs.
But if the composer is great, as Byrd undoubtedly was, an evening-long immersion is bound to reveal all kinds of things lurking under an apparently unvaried surface. That was the case with this superb concert from Phantasm, one of the best viol consorts around (ok, it’s not a crowded field, but there are others). These players know how to aerate Byrd’s smooth weave of independent lines, by slipping in telling pauses. They enliven the dances by pointing up the ingenious way Byrd makes the melodies skip across the regular underlying tread. Viol consorts often play with a perfectly smooth reedy sound, but these players – above all the founder and treble violist Laurence Dreyfus – weren’t afraid to warm the sound with a touch of vibrato.
All this, plus a surprising variety of tone and weight, made the dark-brown world of Byrd’s music glow with an inner light. The three movements from Byrd’s four-part Mass were indeed filled with gravity and piety, but the feeling was so intense that one didn’t miss the absence of words (and as the programme notes reminded us, sacred music was often transferred to instruments in those days).
The Fantasias were serious too, but in a completely different way, each instrument chasing its neighbour in an ingenious contrapuntal pile-up that by the end was almost hectic. The four In Nomine stood out for their extraordinary spicy harmonic clashes, an effect the players clearly relished.
At the opposite pole were the dances, the stately Pavan and skipping Galliard, which in these performances really did skip. Most engaging of all were the fantasias on popular tunes, which kept leaping eccentrically from one tempo to another, a tricky effect that the players managed with aplomb. By the end they had proved that Byrd’s expressive world was surprisingly roomy, and full of quiet intensity and surprise.
Phantasm return to the Wigmore Hall on 14 May to play music by John Jenkins and William Lawes 020 7935 2141