musica Dei donum

CD reviews

William LAWES (1602 - 1645): "The Passion of Musicke"

Sophie Gent, violina; Philippe Pierlot, viola da gambab, lyra-violc; Giovanna Pessi, harpd; Eduardo EgŁez, theorboe

rec: August 2006, Bra sur Lienne
Flora - 1206 [2012] (60'50")
Liner-notes: E
Cover & track-list

anon: A Maskec; Almandc; Ayrec; Maskc; Pavanc; Sarab Jiggc; Thumpc; William LAWES: Aire in Gabde; Almainec; Corantoc; 2 Corantsc; Courentec; Fantazy & Harp Consort Suite in d minorabde; Pavanc; Pavan & Harp Consort Suite in g minorabde; Paven in Gabde;

William Lawes is one of the most interesting English composers of the 17th century. He was held in high esteem by King Charles I as well as by his colleagues. When he died at the siege of Chester in 1645, during the Civil War, they were shocked. By all accounts he was a very individual character, stubborn and recalcitrant, and one is tempted to see this reflected in his music. In particular in some of his consort music he used quite unusual harmonies, sometimes reminiscent of the madrigals of Carlo Gesualdo.

The music on this disc is also highly unusual, at least the Harp Consorts. These are quite unique; I can't think of any other composer having written pieces of this kind. This part of Lawes' oeuvre has been largely neglected. I have just one LP from 1978 (RCA/Seon) with one Harp Consort Suite, played by Edward Witsenburg, with Sigiswald Kuijken (violin), Wieland Kuijken (viola da gamba) and Toyohiko Satoh (theorbo). This is especially surprising because in these consorts we find some of the characteristics Lawes' music is known for, including daring harmonies. The triple harp appeared in England in the early 17th century. In 1625 the French harpist Jean le Flelle arrived in London in the retinue of Charles I's bride, Henrietta Maria. In 1629 he entered the service of the court as "musician for the harp". It is suggested Lawes could have written his Harp Consorts for Le Flelle, probably to be performed by the latter's own consort. In that case the use of a (gut-strung) triple harp, as Giovanna Pessi uses in this recording - rather than the (wire-strung) Irish harp - could be historically justified.

Lawes composed 30 pieces for violin, viola da gamba, harp and theorbo, 25 of which are grouped in suites. The five remaining pieces are somewhat larger in scale and probably of a later date. John Cunningham, in his extensive liner-notes, suggests these could have been intended as a kind of introductions to the suites. The inclusion of a harp in their scoring obviously gets most of the attention, but that shouldn't distract from the divisions which are given to the violin and the viola da gamba in a number of dances. Within these Harp Consorts there is a lot of differentiation as far as the roles of the various instruments is concerned. This is all explained in the liner-notes. The daring harmonies which are so characteristic of Lawes' style of composing come immediately to the fore in the very first piece of the programme, the Pavan in g minor which is incorporated here into the Harp Consort in g minor. The Fantazy in d minor which is here played as the first movement of the Harp Consort in d minor includes a passage with a striking descending chromatic figure which is repeated several times.

The other part of this disc is less unconventional: music for lyra-viol was not an English specialty, but was more popular and more wide-spread there than anywhere else in Europe. Lawes composed a number of pieces for one to three lyra-viols. The pieces for three lyra-viols have been recorded by Concordia. Here Philippe Pierlot plays pieces for one lyra-viol, added by some pieces which have come down to us anonymously. One of them, A Maske, is an arrangement of an Aire for five viols and organ by Lawes. Thump is partly played pizzicato, a technique which was not used in consort music but apparently could be applied in solo pieces.

The Belgian label Flora has some very interesting recordings in its catalogue. I have heard several of them, and regretted that they didn't come with any liner-notes. Fortunately this disc is different, and I hope this indicates a change of policy. The booklet doesn't give the year of its release, but on the internet I learned that it was released earlier this year. That means that this recording has been on the shelf for more than five years which I find hard to understand. Firstly, the repertoire is fascinating and almost completely neglected. Secondly, the performances are just as exciting as the music. It is hard to imagine a better interpretation of this intriguing repertoire than we get here. The players give immaculate performances, individually and in ensemble. Philippe Pierlot explores the features of the lyra-viol repertoire to the full.

If you like English consort music, don't miss this disc.

Johan van Veen (© 2012)

Relevant links:

Eduardo EgŁez
Giovanna Pessi

CD Reviews