Since their founding in 1994, Phantasm have become something of a benchmark in the viol consort genre, and this evening’s programme, comprised entirely of English consort music, demonstrated a subtlety and refinement that is no doubt a product of this long-standing relationship.
The carefully-chosen repertoire allowed for an amazing sense of freedom throughout, and the fantasias that dominated the programme sent endless threads of woven counterpoint trailing through the air. In the dark Magdalen chapel, I noticed a divide in audience members. Some closed their eyes and let the music drift around them, while others sat on the edge of their seats, or even stood, in order to capture every nuance of the individual performers. There is an argument for both methods. The music could be taken as both a passive and (dare I say it?) relaxing, experience, while at the same time being an intricate and intense mesh of passionate and often chromatic ideas that played themselves out according to the whims of long-dead composers.
The blend of sound was like that of an expert choir – it is important to remember that this repertoire was composed in an environment saturated with vocal music – and the level of communication between the performers was such that they operated as a single organism, breathing and moving with each other. Occasionally, one player projected from the sonic texture with a motif, such as the cascading figure in Gibbons’ Fantasia no. 4 a6, but never protruded too far or for too long, and would quickly be subsumed back into the ensemble. The only exception was Laurence Dreyfus, writer on historically-informed performance and director of the group, whose vibrato was often more noticeable than the other performers’, although it did little to disrupt the overall balance, and I appreciated the differentiation of character in the two treble viols.
Tempos were sufficiently varied, from the pathos-laiden and remarkably dissonant entries of Tomkins’ Fantasia XVII to the animated Aire by William Lawes that concluded his Consort Sett VIII a6 in g and the first half. Dynamics, too, were shaded with a finesse that shaped the notes in a meaningful way and made this concert an absolute pleasure from beginning to end.