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SACD Review

John Ward

Fantasies & Verse Anthems

  • Fantasia 2 à 4, VDGS 22
  • Praise the Lord, O my soul
  • Fantasia 5 à 4, VDGS 25
  • Mount up, my soul
  • Fantasia 1 à 4, VDGS 21
  • Down, caitiff wretch (Part 1)
  • Prayer is an endless chain (Part 2)
  • Fantasia 3 à 4, VDGS 23
  • How long wilt thou forget me, O Lord
  • Fantasia 4 à 4, VDGS 24
  • Let God arise
  • Fantasia 6 à 4, VDGS 26
  • This is a joyful, happy holy day
Christopher Terepin, tenor viol
Emily Ashton, tenor & bass viols
Choir of Magdalen College Oxford/Daniel Hyde
Linn SACD CKD427 Hybrid Multichannel
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The fact that the British consort, Phantasm (Laurence Dreyfus, treble viol, director; Emilia Benjamin, treble viol, tenor viol; Jonathan Manson, tenor viol; Mikko Perkola, bass viol), which was founded in 1994 by Laurence Dreyfus, is one of the most respected ensembles of its kind is one reason to prize this CD. That it comes on an SACD with the excellent sound quality we are used to from Linn is another. But what really counts is the happy extent to which these factors work in the service of exposing us to the music of one of the less well-known English Renaissance composers, John Ward, who lived from around 1589 to 1638.

With royal connections, an Italianophile and collector of instruments, the powerful aristocrat Sir Henry Fanshawe was a good patron for John Ward to be attached to. Ward joined the Fanshawe household in 1607, after some time as a chorister at Canterbury Cathedral. Himself an accomplished and probably quite ambitious "gentleman" composer, Ward responded energetically, yet with originality and integrity, to the current vogue for "verse anthems".

Essentially an anglicized fusion of the native viol fantasia with the madrigal, this genre had a brief but colorful history. Some of the words of Ward's anthems (This is a joyful, happy holy day [tr.13], for instance) reflect events in the life of Fanshawe's own patron, Henry Stuart, the Prince of Wales. Yet the music has broad appeal, is self-aware enough to hold its own regardless of the circumstances of its composition is a universal tendency. In this case the celebration is of another's success – the investiture of Henry in 1610. And these singers achieve that broader emotional communication by enunciation and articulation which do not explicitly attempt to persuade or convince.

There is, in other words, a studied neutrality, a sense that the music has been available to us, valid and of unquestioned dependability for a long time. It never lacks freshness or a degree of spontaneity. There are moments of climax (towards the middle of the second Prayer is an endless chain [tr.7], for example). Yet the slightly subdued and authoritative way in which they are approached by these singers allows the contrast with more reflective moments to be all the more effective.

Such passages are really quite impressive for their fullness, richness of texture and at times sheer volume. This is consort music. But it's consort music of power and self-confidence, neither overtly twining or sinuous; nor in any way tentative or exploratory. These works are thought to have been composed in the short span of years between 1609 and 1616. Remember that Shakespeare had Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale and The Tempest and Cervantes Don Quixote at this time; and that the influence of Palestrina and Lassus was at its height and it's not surprising that music of such penetration, melodic and harmonic wealth – not to mention such beauty – seems to have come so easily from Ward.

And Phantasm and the Magdalen Choir seem almost to tap into the same well as Ward did: we hear them seeming to stand behind the unfolding ideas which Ward so fluently and confidently expresses, needing to supply it with only a tiny momentum of their own at four hundred years' distance. At the same time, what we hear on this CD is self-standing; there's no sense that we're taking part in a "reconstruction". This music speaks for itself in every way.

As the individual singers (soloists are drawn fron the Magdalen Choir) project the variety of emotions, statements and inferences which resonate throughout Ward's varied and persuasive writing, they delight in the strength of that writing. Yet not in any way that makes it "iconic" or "exemplary". Rather, they communicate the very sentiments and concepts to which Ward himself responded. This is just as it should be.

Needless to say, almost, the technical accomplishment of both instrumentalists and singers is excellent and enduring. The arrangement of almost alternating instrumental fantasies and accompanied anthems works well. Though not because either Ward's inventiveness, or the resources on which the performers draw are even remotely plumbed. But because almost because such a program seems designed to tease us into wanting more of this under-rated composer.

The acoustic (that of the Chapel of Magdelen College, Oxford) is excellent. Perhaps less resonant than one would expect, it allows concentration on the words and instruments, rather than any sense of a performance. Closely miked, the singers communicate directly with us, rather than declaim. Dreyfus' notes in the booklet, which also contains the full texts (for the anthems numbers 2, 4, 6, 7, 9, 11 and 13), as well as background on the performers, are helpful and reference the editions used, as well as the Viola da Gamba Society's (VDGS), thematic index of the works.

After hearing these wonderful anthems and Fantasies you may marvel that there is only one other CD available devoted exclusively to the music of Ward – also by Phantasm (Linn CKD339). Both can be recommended without hesitation. Ward should be more widely known and appreciated. This work by Dreyfus and his consort make an admirable contribution.

Copyright © 2014, Mark Sealey