Chamber Music New Zealand: Phantasm, Pearls of Polyphony

Grammy-award winning viol consort Phantasm delivered an enthralling celebration of early music on Sunday night. The programme explored the evolution of counterpoint, and the composers who gave historical foundations to the Bach fugues we know and love.


Phantasm beautifully captures the purity of Renaissance music – the viols providing a clarity in tone which is often sacrificed in their modern counterparts. The result: a texture where, despite the polyphony, each voice is easily discernible.

I was blown away by the immense musicality of Laurence Dreyfus, the group’s founder and treble violist. The attention to detail –  in phrasing, choice of vibrato, bow speed and depth of tone –  was impeccable. Tenor violist Jonathan Manson was also a standout, in many ways serving as the communicative “glue” to the ensemble.

The decision to perform the works chronologically was highly effective, providing a scope of early chamber music and its development. However, in doing so, a sense of variety was sacrificed. Without stopping for applause or to introduce works, it was often difficult to distinguish where one work ended and another began.

Nevertheless, the programme had some wonderful highlights. The opening of Richard Mico’s Pavane #3 was incredibly haunting and, for me, the highlight of the first half. Bach’s four-part fugues from The Well-Tempered Clavier were given a new sense of vitality through Mozart’s arrangements. Finally, all four violists demonstrated stellar virtuosity in a selection of Contrapuncti from Bach’s The Art Of Fugue. I was particularly amazed at how effortlessly the 9th Contrapunctus came together; despite the whirlwind tempo and high adrenaline of each voice, the ensemble never faltered.

A step out of the ol’ comfort-zone for many Dunedin concert-goers, myself included, but a well and truly rewarding experience. Phantasm offers a fascinating insight into a world of music which, nowadays, we don’t hear enough of.


Isaac Shatford is currently completing his honours in Composition and Performance Violin at the University of Otago. He procrastinates by playing the piano.