Nicola Lisle talks to Laurence Dreyfus, founder of early music ensemble Phantasm, about their latest recording
There’s a distinctive local flavour to the latest recording by viol consort Phantasm.
The collection of fantasies and verse anthems by 17th-century composer John Ward is the latest collaboration between the Magdalen consort-in-residence and the Choir of Magdalen College.
On top of that, the final anthem on the CD, This is a joyful, happy holy day, is believed to have been written for the investiture of Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales, who matriculated at Magdalen College in 1605. His portrait hangs in the college hall, and has been used for the cover of the new CD.
“We had a lot of fun doing this,” says Laurence Dreyfus, who founded Phantasm in 1994. “Henry was a remarkable young man, who had this whole entourage at court, and went against his father’s wishes, we think, to come up to university.
“He surrounded himself with composers, learned the viol himself, and according to the master of his bedchamber, loved music for voices and viols particularly. Sadly, he died when he was 18 and never became king.
“Because there’s a Magdalen connection we thought it would be fun to do this piece. And it is really good — it mentions viols and consorts and voices in the text as well.”
The CD is Phantasm’s second recording of music by John Ward, the first being a collection of consort music for five and six viols. Why the focus on this little-known composer?
“We’ve been systematically investigating all the English consort composers for the last 20 years,” says Laurence. “And we found all these incredibly interesting English composers who were writing this really advanced kind of chamber music, probably for grand country houses, for Oxford dons, for lawyers and the inns of court and of course the Royal Court.
“One of the interesting things was being in an Oxford college where there’s a choral foundation from this period, when the boys were singing exactly the same music in the 16th and 17th centuries. It was incredibly exciting to go into the original spaces and realise we could make this music for men and boys in the same way as it was written for early on.
“So it led naturally to start thinking about the verse anthem of Ward, and these pieces turned out to be staggeringly good. He has this mellifluous, honey-like way of combining voices, and there’s a sweetness in the way he writes for the viol that’s so attractive.
“He’s a rather serious madrigal-like composer and he brings these worlds together with lots of text setting that is painting the words in very beautiful ways.”
Originally from Boston, Massachus-etts, Laurence trained as a cellist at the Juilliard School in New York before discovering the bass-viol. He founded Phantasm after realising that very few people were playing the early consort repertoire.
“People don’t seem to recognise that England was the centre for this very advanced chamber music. Sometimes it takes a foreigner to come and tell the English what’s really great about the place!” he laughs. “So that’s what I’ve had fun doing.
“There’s something about the complexity and beauty of the music that really speaks to people.”
John Ward Fantasies and Verse Anthems by Phantasm and the Choir of Magdalen College
is released on Linn Records, catalogue no. CKD 427.