How apt that Chamber Music New Zealand had Phantasm working its magic on us in the intimacy of the Auckland Town Hall concert chamber, rather than marooning its four violists on its main stage.

Their programme, Pearls of Polyphony, expertly navigated us from Elizabethan and Jacobean times to Bach, a century later, when the robust sonorities of the violin family had usurped the famed sweetness of viols.

Works by Ferrabosco, Byrd and Tomkins, would have been, in their day, played by civilised amateurs; this concert offered the opportunity to enjoy a rare surrogate music-making experience.

How many, like me, were drawn into the lilting rhythms and criss-crossing lines as if we were part of the group? How many experienced goosebumps and shivers, caught up in the volatile flow between major and minor, or held the breath when pianissimo chords seemed to float in their own radiant firmament above us?


This was no precious academic exercise. Markku Luolajan-Mikkola's athletic bass viol would have stood him in good stead in a jazz club, while one Orlando Gibbons piece cast Laurence Dreyfus and Emilia Benjamin's treble instruments as folkish duelling viols.

After interval, four Purcell Fantasias showed the expressive contrapuntal power of a composer mainly known for his often toe-tapping theatre music. After three particularly buoyant Bach fugues, arranged by Mozart, we had a privileged taste of his The Art of Fugue.

This magnum opus, written in Bach's last years, saw the blind composer drawing incredible complexities from the simplest of themes in a score that has been dismissed as more for the head than the heart.

Not so here. One extract almost danced off the stage with its dotted rhythms and the learned canon that followed was a feathery whirlwind of sound. In another, Bach's intense chromaticism, perfectly articulated by the musicians, transported us into the realm of the visionary.

A welcome encore looked beyond viol repertoire to a Domenico Scarlatti keyboard sonata, with the dying fall of its phrases adding a special poignancy to the farewell.

What: Phantasm
Where: Auckland Town Hall Concert Chamber
Reviewer: William Dart