This is a gem. It's the first complete recording of the consort music for five and six viols by the little-known Jacobean composer, John Ward. Ward was born around 1589 and lived only until 1638; he may not have been a "professional composer" in the usual way that was understood at the time. There is only one other CD dedicated to this somewhat enigmatic yet warm figure, "Upon A Bank With Roses" by the Rose Consort Of Viols on Cpo (999928).
Even were this not the case, this superb SACD from Linn featuring Phantasm, one of the most accomplished ensembles in the field, has done Ward's music proud. Phantasm is Laurence Dreyfus (director and treble viol), Wendy Gillespie (treble viol), Jonathan Manson (tenor viol), Markku Luolajan-Mikkola (bass viol). On this recording they also play with Emilia Benjamin (tenor viol) and Mikko Perkola (bass viol). Founded by Dreyfus (who also wrote the liner notes for this CD), their inspiration was the great string quartets of our times. The ensemble's intention is to play the lovely repertoire from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries with as much passion and bravura as do the quartets their own (later) repertoire. One would have to add two other qualities which make the playing styles and approaches of Phantasm so special: technical prowess and insight. Both are evident aplenty on this collection of Ward's consort music.
In the first place, their technique and attention to every detail and nuance of tempo, texture, melody and instrumental balance is excellent. The tailing off of the Fantasias 6 and 7 for five viols [tr.s 14, 15], for instance, is a study in concentration. But over and above this, the attack, measured zest and sense of the pieces" structure and architecture are exemplary throughout.
Then Phantasm has an unsurpassed ability to draw from each short piece (none is longer than four and a half minutes, though the recording is a generous 78 minutes in toto) not only its essence. That is, the way in which a Fantasia develops melodically – sometimes from a mere germ – into bold and passionate, sometimes almost rhetorical, statements; which are then made to seem utterly natural and to be taken almost for granted. But also the attributes each work needs to achieve its effect: these are textural aspects; attributes of rhythm (listen to the sprung pace and simple canon throughout the Fantasia 4 for six viols [tr.5], for example); and of some rarely very adventurous, but nevertheless quite persuasive tonalities. At times, these have an air of romanticism, certainly wistfulness and yearning. But never with self-conscious Angst or dolefulness. Phantasm achieves this with a unity amongst the players and an authenticity that convinces us well that such an approach is consistent with likely performance practice four hundred years ago.
Above all, perhaps, Phantasm has successfully captured the confidence with which Ward so obviously worked. His unhurried and unemphazised cadences and turns of melody indeed need no underlining. Like a painter content with a palette of earth tones, Ward's music seems to emerge, rather than need to be projected. Yet there is no sense of uniformity in any aspect of Phantasm's playing. It's all laid before us with great aplomb. But somehow not to take or leave it: the players" engagement with every piece in its turn (there are 20 Fantasias, and three In Nomines on this recording) is compelling in part because we are keen to hear what comes next. But more because the playing is centred in the moment. Each bar is an end in itself.
Nor are the obvious Italian influences (particularly the styles of polyphony and counterpoint – as in the First Fantasia for five viols [tr.9], for example) overplayed. No self-consciousness. Just the beauty of the melody and harmonies. Such an approach does Ward and his world a great service. His neglect and diminished reputation (because misunderstood maybe) are implicitly corrected by virtue of the mere exposure of such compelling music by such an expert ensemble.
The warm and rich acoustic of the chapel at Wadham College (Oxford) is well captured on this SACD. Almost by itself it conjures up a log fire crackling in a darkened room while a group of devoted players bows, sways and smiles in the candlelight of Jacobean England. Not that all the music is wintry or somber. There is much that is upbeat, and even outgoing at times.
Yes, there is much about this recording that emphatically transports the listener to another time. But the genuineness, warmth and – paradoxically, perhaps – the intensity and total commitment with which the members of Phantasm play make every note of the music immediate and compelling in a contemporary way. Very warmly recommended not only for anyone familiar with the consort repertoire and wanting to better understand Ward's place in it… sample (or all) tracks can be downloaded in a variety of formats from Linn's website. But also for lovers, really, of ardor, and of controlled emotion with amicable selfless detachment as well.
Copyright © 2010, Mark Sealey.