says Laurence Dreyfus, respected musicologist and the ensemble’s artistic director.
One of Phantasm’s abiding projects has always been to expose audiences to our core repertoire in the hope that they will immediately warm to it as belonging to the finest traditions of chamber music.” The consort music in question was written for an ensemble of viols (violas da gamba), fretted string instruments that are held between the legs. “Viol consorts flourished in England from 1550 until 1680 and were associated with both the royal courts as well as music-making in the great country houses of aristocrats,” Dreyfus explains. “In ‘The English Efflorescence’ I crafted a chronological flow of the extraordinary personalities among the very best English composers, all of them veering towards radical forms of musical eccentricity!”, Dreyfus adds.
English music of the early Baroque followed on closely from the previous Renaissance period, which was characterised by strict polyphony, in which each voice was given equal status. In contrast, the Baroque era introduced a fresh element of tension between the top soprano and bass lines, while the other voices were increasingly required merely to provide some form of harmonic or acoustic “padding”. Unlike Italy or Germany which, around the year 1600, underwent rapid stylistic transformation, no such dramatic change occurred in the British Isles. While new Italian compositions quickly became well-known, including the innovations of Florentine madrigalist Giulio Caccini, the musical tradition founded in the previous century by the likes of composers Thomas Tallis, John Taverner and Christopher Tye – whose music opens this concert – remained embedded well into the 17th century.
English music for viol consorts culminated in the works of William Byrd and Orlando Gibbons, who are familiar in this country chiefly as authors of sacred music and pieces for keyboard instruments. These English virginalists, as they were called, were great masters of variational technique and diverse tone colour, which they achieved using different instrumental effects. Through variations they often treated popular folk melodies or sacred songs, demonstrating in the process their compositional and improvisational flair.
“Two standouts for me personally among the composers on the programme are William Lawes and Henry Purcell,” Laurence Dreyfus tell us. “Lawes, a figure of Beethovenian aspirations, engages in some risky behaviour in the service of a new form of musical expressivity.” Purcell’s oeuvre for viol consort blends modern Italian approaches and English archaisms, this flawless symbiosis bringing an unmistakable quality to his music. His distinctive harmony combines progressive elements of the high Baroque, which we will recognise in other major composers of the day, and archaic, strictly guided polyphony full of unusual dissonance. Purcell’s music developed primarily in purely English contrapuntal forms known as fancy (free fantasia) and In nomine (a polyphonic form with its name derived from the antiphon Gloria Tibi Trinitas, on whose plainchant base the other voices are constructed). “Young Purcell was only 20 years old when he composed his Fantasies,” Dreyfus notes. “He comes at the very end of the consort tradition. He both sums up his studies of earlier composers’ accomplishments as well as designs new experiments that evoke a spirit heard subsequently only in Beethoven’s late string quartets,” he concludes.
As Gramophone magazine wrote, “Phantasm’s playing brims with imaginative fantasy and dance-like momentum.” The English viol consort was established in 1994 by viola da gamba player and musicologist Laurence Dreyfus and, since the release of their first CD containing works by Henry Purcell, they have been hailed as the finest viol ensemble on the current classical scene. Their first three recordings of music from the English Baroque viol school won Gramophone awards; other honours, including the prestigious Diapason d’Or and several BBC accolades, were not long in coming.
The ensemble has made twenty recordings, while the most recent from 2020 entitled The Well-Tempered Consort is surprisingly dedicated to The Well-Tempered Clavier by Johann Sebastian Bach. Here, what were originally keyboard compositions were arranged for viol consort with the aim of presenting Bach’s 24-part collection of preludes and fugues in a completely new light. Thus the rich fabric of individual voices in this case is not woven by two hands, but by an ensemble of six violists. In Bach’s time viols were already considered largely outdated and, through his Well-Tempered Clavier, the composer now wished to pay tribute to the emerging era of keyboard instruments. As is evident, Phantasm is certainly not afraid of experimenting and, given their number of appearances (the ensemble enchanted audiences in places like Tokyo, Istanbul, Barcelona and Washington), their broadcasts for major radio stations and the awards they have garnered, this audacious route has certainly been one worth taking. The eminence of the ensemble is also reflected in their three appearances during the 2017/2018 season in one of the world’s best known concert venues, Wigmore Hall in London, and in their appointment as Consort-in-Residence at the University of Oxford. In 2015 Phantasm moved their base to Berlin, from where the ensemble’s director Laurence Dreyfus plans the consort’s activities and pursues his own independent research. He has written three highly acclaimed books, two on Johann Sebastian Bach (Bach’s Continuo Group and Bach and the Patterns of Invention) and one on Richard Wagner (Wagner and the Erotic Impulse).