Two important surveys of Gibbons: Phantasm play viol consorts with verve, Magdalen sing church music with elegant charm
Anything done by Phantasm these days must be taken very seriously. They are a superb ensemble. If they now turn their attention to the viol music of Gibbons, it is inevitably with a focus on the central works that are definitely for viols and definitely by Orlando Gibbons: the six great fantasies for six viols, the four marvellous fantasies for three viols, and a selection of what is otherwise best of his viol music in five and six parts.
They play with vast assurance and verve, always attractive, always with fresh and varied textures, always beautifully balanced. This is often playing of a breathtaking virtuosity that communicates the music with irresistible vitality. Some listeners may feel that they hit poor Gibbons a little too hard, occasionally losing track of the poetry that is his own special contribution; and others could feel that some of the tempi are chosen simply for the bravado, especially in the dazzling performance of Go from my window that ends the disc. But this is classy playing and a major contribution to the catalogue.
As a slightly eccentric bonne bouche they steer away from the music with a violone, preferring to offer arrangements of keyboard pieces and vocal anthems. This is presumably to stress the unquestionable truth that music in those days was often not genre-specific; but in the event it emphasises that the greatest of Gibbons's viol pieces are perfectly suited to that particular ensemble - which is itself worth remembering.
By contrast, the Magdalen College choir focus on his church music, including the finest of his verse anthems - This is the record of John with Rogers Covey-Crump slightly below his best and See, see the word is incarnate, with a fine range of top-flight soloists (and a doubled treble line). In all this the viols of Fretwork provide a marvellously fluid accompaniment to the Magdalen College Choir on persuasive form under the direction of Bill Ives. This is a much gentler vision of Gibbons than Phantasm offer, always judicious; but it also has slightly less personality. Jonathan Hardy contributes two neatly turned organ solos.
The eccentricity here is in the central piece, the Second Service, which is performed with accompaniment not by organ but by a consort of viols. The argument, as I understand it, is that there is no clear evidence that this was not done at the time. Well: it sounds nice enough and certainly doesn't detract from the music.