Released on 30 August 1994
Fretwork’s performances…do full justice to the riches of a repertory recently described as ‘the finest body of chamber music before Mozart’…The obvious virtues of Fretwork’s playing, the warmth of tone, the sustained lyricism, and the willingness to take risks with the music, make for compelling listening…The monumental quality of Byrd’s achievement in this genre has never been more powerfully demonstrated.
An essential disc for the Byrd sanctuary. Like the keyboard works, the viol consort music is divided between works based on existing material, in this instance usually a fragment of plainsong, and free fantasias. Again, the pieces dependant on a cantus firmus are mostly early works, not surprisingly in view of the fact that this was an approved way for a composer to hone his contrapuntal skills in the 16th-century. In the instance of Byrd any suggestion this might carry of dryness is quickly dispersed by the luminescent beauty of a work like the four-part Christe redemptor. The seven settings made by Byrd (two in four parts, five scored for five-part ensemble) of that peculiarly English form, the In nomine also show considerable skill in their varying treatment of the famous motif from John Taverner’s Missa Gloria tibi Trinitas. Yet it is in the fantasias that Byrd’s greatness as a consort composer is at its most evident. Whether in the four examples in three parts, exquisite miniatures as beautifully crafted as those of the Elizabethan painter Nicholas Hilliard, or the magnificent structures in five and six parts, Byrd’s powers of invention and contrapuntal skill consistently delight and surprise.
Fretwork’s performances are outstanding, more objective and poised than those to be found in the overtly warm and expressive playing of the five and six part works by Phantasm (Simax PSC 1143). Both discs, in their different ways, are highly recommendable, but it is Fretwork who get the final nod for allowing us to explore the entire corpus of this small but remarkable part of Byrd’s output.
Brian Robins, Goldberg Magazine
Catalogue number: Virgin Classics VC 5 45031 2