1 May 2018, MTG, Napier
Chamber Music New Zealand presents: Phantasm

By Louis Pierard

It’s always reassuring to see the number of grizzled heads matched by those of younger folk in a chamber music audience. And particularly so for a concert profiling viols – that upright but obsolete, fretted band which yielded to the violin family in the late 17th century – and the most celebrated of viol consorts, Phantasm.

Led and founded in 1994 by American Laurence Dreyfus, who with Englishwoman Emilia Benjamin plays the treble (Jonathan Manson plays tenor and Markku Luolajan-Mikkola, bass), Phantasm presented an engaging and accessible musical education that should have filled the theatre.

The inspired programme traced the role of the viol in English polyphony, from the court of Queen Elizabeth with works by Ferrabosco, Byrd, Bevin and Tomkins, to the Jacobeans Gibbons and Richard Mico, the post-Civil War Commonwealth in Matthew Locke, and to Purcell, who probably penned the last music for viol consorts in the 1680s before their modern revival. The evening ended in “Arts of the Fugue”, with Mozart arrangements for quartet of three fugues from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, and the Contrapuncti 1,2, 11 and 9 from Bach’s Art of the Fugue.

One doesn’t have to be a devotee of early music and its practitioners to have found the evening both enjoyable and instructive. Its structure and variety provided an absorbing musical journey from Ferrabosco’s mannered A Fancy to the youthful Purcell’s Fantazias, which are striking in their complexity and in anticipating compositions a century later.

Bach’s final work, the uncompleted Die Kunst der Fuge (BWV 1080), set out to explore the possibilities for counterpoint in a single musical subject. The result might have appeared so arcane as to draw only the attentions of academics. However, it has become the monumental apotheosis of contrapuntal writing, and the idea that even advanced counterpoint, as Dreyfus notes, can be passionate, lyrical and expressive is a sublime achievement. The work has been much recorded, and with a host of different instruments and combinations, and its bathyal depths will continue to exert their fascination for purely intuitive listeners and scholars alike.

Of course the violists helped on the night, performing with precision – maintaining good intonation is no easy matter with temperamental gut strings – as well as genuine affection. There was none of the suffocating earnestness or jaw-breaking ennui that sometimes attends “historically informed” performances.

So, if you weren’t there, you missed something special. And for lovers of chamber music, as well as for music students (for whom attending a minimum number of live performances really ought to be a mandatory requirement) Chamber Music NZ’s next treat in Napier, 24 May, is a presentation by The New Yorker music critic and best-selling author Alex Ross, with Kiwi mezzo soprano Bianca Andrew and modern music ensemble Stroma in “a musical tasting session that winds through the ages” featuring work by Ravel, Bartók, Stravinsky and Schoenberg. It’s not one to be missed.

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