I have a weakness for the viol consort, and a great appreciation for Phantasm’s recordings, especially their wonderful disc of Purcell’s Fantasies for Viols released on Simax in 1996. This group has a coherence and cohesiveness in everything they play that gives a clear, homogenous sound. Leader Laurence Dreyfus makes excellent choices in both music and performance, leading to beautiful recordings, and this disc is no exception.
The marketing blurb informs us that this is 'the first complete collection of William Byrd's consort music, including new hymn settings that are première recordings.' Indeed, while Fretwork released a 'Complete Consort Music' disc in 2001, this current recording has four tracks more than the Fretwork album.
Textual research aside, what we have here is more than 79 minutes of William Byrd’s immensely attractive consort music for viols. The works are scored for 3 to 6 instruments, and feature the lovely sound of Byrd’s music, with textures that make life so much more attractive. While the viol consort in many ways prefigures the string quartet, there is more of a resolved sound than that of the quartet, where instruments generally play more individual lines. Sometimes in Byrd’s music there is subtle counterpoint among the players, but the viols lend themselves to more of a unified sound. Byrd’s music is inventive and refined, and reflects the type of music he composed for choirs. Listening to his viol music, you can almost imagine how voices would sound singing the same music.
The order of the works on this disc is well selected, and the music varies in the number of instruments for the different pieces—not all the three-part works are together. Paying attention to the number of instruments can be interesting, as even the three-part pieces have a density that can surprise; these are nothing like later string trios.
It’s hard to latch on to melodies in this type of music, as it is a constantly changing tapestry of counterpoint, but with repeated listens, one discovers the subtlety of Byrd’s music for viol consort. The performances here are excellent, and the recording as good as possible for a viol consort. In fact, this disc benefits greatly from hearing on headphones, which allows the listener better to distinguish the individual lines.
I strongly commend this recording to anyone who likes the sound of the viol consort, Byrd’s music, early music, or any kind of music. It is one of the finest recordings I’ve heard so far this year, and one of the best recordings of a viol consort I have heard. The music, the performers, and the excellent sound make this a pleasure to listen to again and again.