This is a collection of music composed by William Byrd for viol consort, probably between 1560 and 1603. The viol is the ancestor of the cello, a fretted, bowed instrument with six strings. It comes in several sizes, and the six members of Phantasm play a selection ranging from bass through to treble. Their sound at full stretch is extraordinary - the higher instruments possess a flute-like timbre and the bass viol’s lower reaches have a gorgeous, bottomless depth. Listening to this Linn disc is a bit like bathing in chocolate; you’re immersed in musical textures of unbelievable warmth. These works are often richly polyphonic, sometimes sounding like instrumental transcriptions of vocal music, and Byrd does make use of hymn tunes and snatches of plainsong. Which might imply that this is a collection of murky, austere music – on the contrary, Phantasm’s performances skip, dance and sing.
Laurence Dreyfus’s notes trace the development of Byrd’s viol music from the breeziness of the early hymn transcriptions to the final three-voiced fantasias, each one a concise, stripped down miracle of concentration. The concision startles, and it’s a shock to realise that many of the 27 pieces on this disc don’t exceed three minutes. Invariably they feel much longer, but in a good way. You’re continually surprised by the potency of Byrd’s musical imagination – the occasional quirky modulation, or the subtle use of dance rhythms, which give the music such lift. Linn’s production values are as exceptional as the performances, and this release is also available as a high-quality download. Blissful.