PHANTASM: Consorts by William Byrd and Richard Mico
Classical Periods: Renaissance
Composers: William Byrd
Performers: Alison McGillivray, Jonathan Manson, Laurence Dreyfus, Markku Luolajan-Mikkola, Martha McGaughey, Phantasm, Wendy Gillespie
William Byrd (c1543-1623)
Richard Mico (c1590-1661)
Still Music of the Spheres
Laurence Dreyfus - treble viol
Wendy Gillespie - treble and tenor viols
Jonathan Manson - tenor viol
Markku Luolajan-Mikkola - bass viol
Phantasm were joined by Martha McGaughey,
tenor viol (Tracks 1-8)
Alison McGillivray, bass viol (Tracks 1, 7)
Phantasm, a quartet of viols founded in 1994, catapulted into international prominence when its debut CD won a Gramophone Award for the Best Baroque Instrumental Recording of 1997. Since then, they have released eight further recordings and have become recognised as the most exciting viol consort active on the world scene today. Critics have called their performances and recordings: 'intoxicating', 'revelatory', 'electrifying', 'interpretations pervaded by a truly burning spirit'.
I've yet to catch up with Phantasm's award-winning debut disc of Purcell's great viol Fantasias (warmly welcomed by Robert Maxham in Fanfare 20:4), but can immediately confirm that they have another resounding success on their hands with its successor. Indeed, about the only thing wrong with the disc is the foolish title Simax has saddled it with-Still Music of the Spheres. Still- Much of this music has a forward-moving momentum and rhythmic vitality you'd be hard put to equal anywhere. As for the spheres, well, I suppose there are places where Byrd's viol consorts seem to move on different temporal levels, but that's about as close as you'll come.
Having disposed of that gripe the rest is enthusiastic praise, not least for the adventurous idea of teaming the Byrd works with those of a virtually forgotten composer of the next generation. Richard Mico (c. 1595-1661) was descended from a French Huguenot family that emigrated to England, where he worked initially for Byrd's former patrons, the Petres, later becoming organist of the Roman Catholic chapel of Henrietta Maria, Charles l's wife. None of Mico's consort works were published in his lifetime, although Burney records that Christopher Simpson, writing six years after his death named him as one of the best composers of "Fansies." It is 10 of these Fancys that form the principal part of a selection chosen by Phantasm, which has divided them into four short Sets, prefacing three of them with Pavans. Without exception all these pieces reveal Mico to have been a composer with a distinctly individual voice whose closely woven counterpoint is skillfully laid out for the four-part viol ensemble, frequently belying the verdict of the New Oxford History (Vol. 4) that Mico was one of a group of later consort composers who avoided the "problematical and profound." This is in fact eminently worthwhile music; and I for one am grateful to Phantasm for reviving it and playing it with such commitment. The principal rival in the Byrd pieces is Fretwork's complete disc of the consort music on Virgin Classics (assuming it to be still available). There's a marked (and equally valid) difference of approach between the two groups. Whereas Fretwork adopted a considered and poised interpretive style, Phantasm is considerably more expressive and excitable, bowing more deeply into the strings, and bringing pieces like Browning and the second of the six-part Fantasias to truly thrilling erorations.
Technically and rhythmically, too, they are absolutely superb. I did wonder whether the conclusion of the "In nomine IV" was possibly just a shade too hectic, but then cast my mind back to the luminescence of the opening of the same piece and forgave all. The sound captures this full, rich, and buoyant playing to perfection, and there is no doubt that the disc demands unqualified recommendation. Those wanting Byrd's complete consort music will probably already own the Fretwork. If you don't, it's worth making the point that most of the cream is here, in addition to which you will have the pleasure of making Mico's acquaintance. For the best of all worlds have both-they complement each other in the most satisfying manner.
Brian Robins, Fanfare -May/June 1998 p.105
Rondo (Helsinki), January 1998. The resounding harmony of the spheres. Phantasm reveals its own inner depths as well as the depths of the order of nature and the healing power of music... an interest that has increased a good deal in past years, especially in New-Age circles. The first Gramophone-award-winning recording of Phantasm defined the terminal point and culmination of a polyphonic tradition. Now this international group of viol players has travelled to the roots of the same tradition, to the refined consort music of William Byrd. The playing of Phantasm reaches the realm of heaven...dance rhythms are articulated nimbly and with grace.The engineering (recording) on this CD is even better than its award-winning predecessor, and the musical ambience is natural, as if one were sitting across from the musicians. Phantasm carries listeners to the brink of the search for ultimate meaning and guarantees they will find satisfaction there. Each hearing of this recording has something new to offer.
Antti Häyrynen, Rondo (Finland) - January 1998