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William LAWES (1602 - 1645): "The Royal Consort"

Phantasm

rec: August 19 - 21, 2013 & August 30 - Sept 2, 2014, Oxford, Magdalen College (chapel)
Linn Records - CKD 470 (2 CDs) ( 2015) (2.23'45")
Liner-notes: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

The Royall Consorta:
Sett No.1 in d minor (2-6); Sett No. 2 in d minor (8-13); Sett No. 3 in d minor (15-21); Sett No. 4 in D (22-28); Sett No. 5 in D (29-35); Sett No. 6 in D (37-41); Sett No. 7 in a (43-48); Sett No. 8 in C (50-54); Sett No. 9 in F (55-61); Sett No. 10 in B flat (62-67)
Sett to the Organ a 5 in Fb; Sett to the Organ a 6 in Cc; Sett to the Organ a 6 in c minorc
[Sett a 4 in d minor]d (Paven (76); Alman (260), Saraband (264))

Laurence Dreyfus, Emilia Benjamin, treble viol; Jonathan Manson, tenor viol; Mikko Perkola, tenor violb, bass violc; Markku Luolajan-Mikkola, bass viol
with: Emily Ashton, tenor violc; Elizabeth Kenny, theorboad; Daniel Hyde, organbc

Performing musicians and composers of the 17th and 18th centuries often came from musical families. If they had brothers and sisters there is a good chance that these made a career in music as well. That is also the case with William Lawes. He was the son of Thomas Lawes who entered the choir of Salisbury Cathedral as a lay vicar in 1602. Thomas' eldest son was Henry (1596-1662) who developed into England's most prominent composer of songs. Two younger brothers, Thomas junior and John, became singers in the cathedrals of Salisbury and Westminster respectively.

William developed into a versatile composer of vocal and instrumental music. It seems that he entered the service of the court at a relatively early age, but it was only in 1635 that he was given an official post as a lutenist. It is possible that he participated in private music meetings with Prince Charles (who became King in 1625). He remained loyal to his employer in the time of the Civil War. In 1645 he was killed at the siege of Chester.

Although Lawes composed music in every genre in vogue in his time his instrumental music is generally considered his main contribution to English music history. That goes especially for the music for a consort of viols. This genre was not confined to England, but met with a wider response there than elsewhere in Europe. On the continent the viol consort started to become obsolete during the first half of the 17th century, but in England it became even more popular than before. In the late 16th century consort music was mostly played at court, but after the turn of the century it disseminated across the higher echelons of society. Composers started to write less technically demanding music which was within the grasp of amateurs. It is questionable whether that also goes for Lawes' consort music which is played on the present set of discs by Phantasm.

Stylistically it differs from earlier music for viol consort in that it includes a part for basso continuo. This is the direct result of the growing influence of modern Italian music, especially in Prince Charles' Private Musick. There are other factors which make the The Royall Consort stand out, as Laurence Dreyfus writes in his liner-notes. "[The] Royal Consort revels in taking extraordinary liberties with conventional harmony, voice-leading and phrase rhythm, liberties which still raise eyebrows today. These extravagancies were acknowledged but also graciously forgiven by contemporaries." He quotes an author from the second half of the century as saying that "to indulge the ear, [Lawes] sometimes broke the rule of mathematical composition." There is another issue which needs to be mentioned. This collection exists in another scoring: the two treble viols are replaced by two violins, the parts of tenor and bass viols are scored for two bass viols whereas the basso continuo is allocated to two theorbos. I am aware of two other recordings of this collection, by Sonnerie (Gaudeamus, 1995 and 1997, later reissued together in 2003) and by the Purcell Quartet (Chandos, 1995). Both ensembles recorded the version with violins. Dreyfus claims that Phantasm's recording is the first of the former version.

It is not quite clear which version is the original. Dreyfus assumes there is no 'original' version, and that at least parts of the collection were written in different scorings simultaneously. He states that a comparison of the two versions show that the one with viols is in various respects superior to the one with violins, especially because of the scoring for two bass viols. "While they look good on the page, the bass parts are often needlessly busy, since their composition post-dated the contrapuntal ideas which sparked the composer's initial conception." He even notes that there are "several examples of Lawes making matters worse with his tinkering". This explains his preference for the version with viols.

Those expecting consort music to be basically solemn and introverted, and quietly moving forward will be surprised by these pieces. Yes, there are solemn movements, for instance the almans and some pieces which are entitled aire, but The Royall Consort also includes quite different stuff. The most extraordinary pieces are those called Morriss which "brings out an intentionally foolish folk dance (...) by emphasizing both enjoyably foul country harmonies completely missing in high-style works as well as accented iambs equivalent to Scotch snaps, in which the bravado of male dancers makes them fling themselves round the maypole with bells, handkerchiefs and wooden swords." They have to be played in "fast tyme", according to the composer. The sarabands are far off from the slow sarabandes we meet in French and German instrumental suites of the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Here they are "generally quick-witted and jaunty postscripts to a sett." Many corants also receive a vivid performance in which their origin as dance music comes to the fore.

That raises the question what exactly is the function of this music. Could it have been intended as dance music? Dreyfus believes that "[the] Royal Consort would have been useless for actual dancing in the 1630s, as historical dances depended on a relatively fixed number of beats or groupings. (...) Every page of the Royal Consort (...) is filled with oddly irregular groupings of nine- and eleven- and thirteen bars, which would have befuddled dancers at the time." He points out that the use of the title aire often reflects the insecurity of the composer: "[Even] he doesn't always know exactly which dance he is composing for". There are also some dances where Lawes puts the accent on the wrong beat, for instance in the opening aire from the Sett No. 1. These pieces are "dance music 'in a high style'. (...) Lawes composes his parts as if the performing musicians are themselves dancing. Rather than dance music to accompany actual dance, the Royal Consort experiences the varied gestures and vivid movements that we yearn for in dance".

This is all brilliantly realized here. The faster movements are performed with a great sense of rhythm and remind the listener that these movements are indeed rooted in dance music. The role of the theorbo is especially important here as Elizabeth Kenny perfectly underlines the rhythmic pulse. This is not the only aspect which attracts attention. There are also quite some movements which include harmonic peculiarities. False relations are not uncommon in English music of the renaissance but not often a composer goes as far as Lawes in exploring the expressive possibilities of harmony. In some movements from the Consorts to the Organ Lawes goes even some steps further. "With each movement in the organ consorts, Lawes defies every acknowledged convention of harmony and strikes out on his own inimitable path".

I urge every lover of consort music to follow the composer on this path and take Phantasm as his guide. This is a fascinating and highly compelling production: William Lawes was a unique voice in the choir of English composers of the 17th century and Phantasm makes his voice heard loud and clear.

Johan van Veen ( 2015)

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