Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Phantasm/Dreyfus @ SJSS, London

22 May 2009

St John's Smith Square

St John’s Smith Square (Photo: St John’s Smith Square)

Stepping partly outside the 25th Lufthansa Baroque Festival’s main period of exploration (1659-1759), this concert saw Phantasm perform sixteenth and seventeenth century Fancy-Musick.

And in it we learnt much about the evolution of this English genre, thanks to some clever programming and insightful playing by the consort of five viols.

After Henry VIII introduced viol players from Italy, English composers competed to write artful music in four, five and six parts. It sewed the seeds for the emergence of truly independent instrumental polyphony, and Fancy-Musick (as it came to be known) lasted until the time of Purcell.

In this concert Phantasm made it easy for us to appreciate how revelatory many of the compositions really were. Although clearly ingenious to start with, they also required this group’s level of understanding of them for all of their nuances to be brought out to the full.

The first half explored sixteenth century compositions. In Robert Parsons’ In nomine III the deliberate discords were played so skilfully that overall the piece sounded beautifully balanced and coherent. It was also interesting to see how in his De la court the players became both emotionally and physically moved by the specific line they were playing. Director Laurence Dreyfus with his treble viol swayed liberally with the music, whilst Markka Luolajan-Mikkola’s composure was more serene as he played the lowest part on his bass viol.

The performance of Byrd’s Queen’s Goodnight perhaps overemphasised the sombre aspects of the piece to the detriment of its more exuberant elements, but the playful changes of key in his Fantasia a 5 were very successfully handled. Then Orlando Gibbons’ In nomine a 5 featured some exquisitely languid strokes from all five players, although his short The silver swanne simply left me wanting more.

The second half revealed the real inventiveness of seventeenth century composers, John Jenkins and William Lawes, but it was the performances of four Fantazias by Purcell that really topped the evening. With Purcell building on 150 years of knowledge, whilst also applying his own distinctive mark, these pieces came across as the most accomplished of the evening.

And as the players seemed to stroke and tease the notes out of their instruments in the Fantazia 11 a 4, and the bass viols led so superbly in the Fantazia 7 a 4, we were truly able to appreciate them in all their glory.

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