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Phantasm's debut recording on Linn Records explores the music of the Jacobean composer John Ward.
A 24-bit 192 kHz studio master for this album is available from the Linn Records website.
Ward’s magisterial consort music for five and six viols – recorded here complete for the first time – deserves far more than a monument to sobriety and wisdom, for one encounters works which seduce the ear into a dream of lyrical temptation and wistful longing without a word having to be uttered. Unlike the more restless Orlando Gibbons (1583–1625) with his brilliant concentration of catchy phrases and quick-witted ingenuity, or even John Jenkins (1592–1678) with his balmy waves of gorgeous sound and playful metrical games, Ward projects a sense of unhurried leisure in his consorts which happily indulge in gentle forays, delighting in the way that music can rove and meander in journeys which sound far more protracted than their limited duration might suggest. If Ward’s pleasant outings at first seem no more than scenic and a bit aimless, the more one submits to the composer’s guiding and inviting hand, the more one warms to the oh so gentle way he prods you to move along to vistas never before glimpsed, surveying a musical landscape wholly his own. The leisure in Ward’s roving harmonies is best captured in a paradox: with its obsessive love of interrupted cadences, this is music which longs for “home” while ensuring that it won’t return anytime soon. As with so much great music, the pleasure lies in the certain knowledge that one will reach a desired goal while luxuriating in a tactical if languorous delay. One confronts this paradox in many of Ward’s Fantasias, though in Fantasia No 6 a 6 (Track 3), he takes the conceit to extreme and beautiful lengths: here the composer diagnoses how he can frustrate the return to the key (or Aire) of C major so that the sweetness of the concluding chord supplies the most satisfying and cushioned close. Another form of more overt roving occurs in the adventurous, even startling harmonic shifts of Fantasia No 1 a 5 (Track 9) which glide with little seeming effort through a breathtaking succession of remote flat and sharp keys.
Since the time of Robert Parsons and William Byrd, the Fantasy (or Fancie as it was also known) had resorted to snippets of dance music to launch a change of direction and character, or just to unleash pent-up energy. Ward uses dance references (mostly to Pavans) sparingly but with great charm. In Fantasia 3 a 6 (Track 2), one hears in the middle of piece a brief kind of competitive antiphony between two bands of instruments at a masque, each taunting the other with their supposed superiority.
Other riveting musical moments which call a halt to the continuous parading of imitative polyphony are indebted to the gestures of sung madrigals, in which a small group of singers enunciate important words together in clearly audible syllables sung at the same time. Ward had already published a collection of English madrigals in 1613 before he composed his instrumental fantasias found on this recording (completed before 1619), and we hear a host of Italian ‘madrigalisms’ transplanted into an instrumental idiom with such subtlety and elegance that one never misses the words: the wailing chromatic pathos heard at the end of Fantasia No 3 a 5 (Track 11) furnishes one such example and there are several others as well. Madrigals make a more explicit appearance in the four five-part pieces bearing titles. (The title found in editions of Fantasia No 1 a 5, ‘Dolce languir’ occurs only in a source which attributes the piece implausibly to Richard Deering.) Each of these – but especially Fantasias No 11 and 13 – supply the vital signs of human breath so often absent from instrumental fantasies, in which the viol players seem to boast that they can sing ‘unending melody’ without frequent intakes of air. While ‘Leggiadra sei’ (How graceful you are!) and La Rondinella (The Swallow) could in no way be transcriptions of vocal pieces, a source for ‘Cor mio’ in fact furnishes a conventional piece of Italian poesia per la musica attached to the bass part, so one can savour, for example, how the voices in the opening phrases inhale at the commas after Cor mio (my heart) and Deh (pray!) and elsewhere made a point of shadowing the words:
Cor mio, deh, non languire
Che fai teco languir l’anima mia!
Odi i caldi sospiri, a te gl’invia
La pietade e ‘l desire.
S’ i’ ti potessi dar morendo aiuta
Morrei per darti vita.
Ma vivi, ohimè, che ingiustamente muore
Chi vivo tiene l’altrui petto il core.
My heart, pray, do not pine,
For you make my soul languish with you!
Hear the warm sighs which
My concern and desire send you.
If my dying gave you succour
I’d die to give you life.
But you live, alas, and how unjust
To die for one whose heart belongs to another.
At the other end of the stylistic spectrum – turning away from madrigals – are Ward’s three examples of the In Nomine, that venerable genre on a plainsong spelled out in long note values. Ward alternately hides and flaunts the authority of the In Nomine tune, thereby invoking a long tradition harking back to John Taverner indulged in by every serious composer of consort music. The In Nomine a 5 is the most self-consciously severe and ‘historical’ of the three pieces – as if one were cast back into a more angular and Elizabethan state of mind – but in the six-part works a touch of wistful elegy tempers severity, with the In Nomine 2 a 6 even briefly referring back to the five-part work midway into the piece.
Ward seems to have realised that his music was far from ordinary and pursued a personal approach which on occasion sparked negative reactions: in the dedication of his madrigals to Sir Henry Fanshawe one reads how his ‘compositions had bred many censors’ and of the composer’s worry that his works might ‘prove distasteful with the queasy pallated’. Playing the five and six-part consorts today, I’m convinced that Ward need no longer fear what he called the ‘corrupted number of time-sick humourists’, but can only win loyal friends and admirers.
Laurence Dreyfus © 2009