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 Recording of the Week  Byrd’s Complete Consort Music

I imagine the sound of a viol consort will be fairly unfamiliar to many readers, so I’m particularly pleased to have a terrific new recording of Byrd’s complete consort music played by Phantasm to write about today.

A former pupil of Thomas Tallis, William Byrd (c.1540-1623) wrote in a wide variety of styles and his significant output included masses, Latin motets, English song, keyboard music, and of course consort music. He is generally regarded as one of the great masters of European Renaissance music, and in England, the greatest composer of the Elizabethan era.


Despite spanning nearly forty years, Byrd’s complete surviving consort music fits conveniently onto one disc. As Laurence Dreyfus points out in his interesting and well-written booklet notes, you can trace a stylistic development throughout those years – starting with pieces which used devotional hymn tunes as their starting point, going through music based on popular tunes and dances before finally writing a number of fantasias which don’t have an obvious influence but are just supremely crafted musical miniatures, full of dense counterpoint and lush sonorities. To create variety, Dreyfus opts not to present them in chronological order on this disc, but to mix them up, and so throughout the disc you are constantly switching between lighter more dance-like pieces, slower more meditational ones, and richer more emotional ones. I think this works very well.

There are three types of viol used on this disc – treble, tenor and bass – and the pieces on here call for various combinations from just three instruments up to six. I frequently found it curiously hard to tell how many were actually playing here, particularly in the three-part fantasias where I found myself double and triple checking the track list to confirm that there were indeed only three people playing!

Phantasm are one of the finest viol consorts in the world today, and previous recordings have won two Gramophone Awards in addition to numerous other international nominations and citations. Here you can quickly tell why they are so revered – they blend into a rich but sweet sound, tuning is faultless, while balance and ensemble sound like a single person at work. This music is beautiful and that obviously helps, but the way they create a calmness to the more sensual pieces, engage with the dance rhythms of the lighter ones, and relish the rich counterpoint of others shows a real understanding and commitment to this music.

When writing this music Byrd clearly enjoyed the freedom to experiment given to him by not having to set a specific text, and Phantasm clearly enjoy playing the music just as much.

You’ll probably have noticed recently that we’ve started adding a significant number of sound samples to the website – particularly for new and recent releases. I hope that for discs like this, those samples are particularly useful in order to get a real idea of what the music and performances are like.


Byrd: Complete Consort Music


Available Format: SACD