The music of William Byrd has been something of an obsession for the members of Phantasm, featuring on their early recordings Still Music of the Spheres (1996) and Byrd Song (1998), as well as their 2004 collection The Four Temperaments. Here they return again to the Elizabethan composer with the benefit of nearly two decades' performing experience, to gather together his complete output for viol consort, bar the fragmentary or spurious works. Spanning some 40 years of Byrd's life, this is a condense but subtly varied album of styles: courtly dances interleave with cryptic spiritual and devotional works - fleeting expressions of the recusant Catholic's unwavering faith - and variations on popular Tudor songs, like the magnificent tour de force, Browning. Among the finest works are the Fantasias, which range from lush-textured six-part tapestries to the laconic three-part pieces, haiku-like in their poetic expressivity. Throughout them Byrd retains the ‘Angelical and Divine' qualities that his contemporaries remarked upon - qualities that Phantasm captures perfectly in this collection.
The ensemble's director, Laurence Dreyfus (himself something of a Renaissance man), combines rigorous intellect with sensitive musicianship. He leads his colleagues through a series of urbane discourses exploring the abstract, cerebral nature of Byrd's consort music, beyond its earthy, folk-influenced style. Ensemble and intonation are flawless; keen rhythms and feather-light bowings give a lightness of touch to the dances. The recorded balance is acutely judged, too, ensuring that Byrd's contrapuntal lines are always distinct. Listeners with surround-sound are placed thrillingly in the centre of these musical conversations.
If it's the complete consort works you're after, Fretwork's 1994 disc on Virgin Classics makes a strong competitor - a recording which, despite its nearly 20 years of age, stands the test of time superbly well. Fretwork's approach is more visceral, tempos are predominately slower and timbre is richer, darker, thanks to the resonant recording and some robust playing from the bass viol. By comparison, Phantasm's approach is rather more agile and airy and, with the focus thrown more on the treble and tenor viols, the consort sound has greater luminescence. Readers familiar with the ensemble's other CDs may find these performances more restrained, more introspective, perhaps more rationally controlled than before, but the approach is fitting for Byrd's terse, pellucid style and the melancholy spirit that haunted his age.