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William Lawes: "Knock'd on the head - Music for Viols"

Dir: Mark Levy

rec: Sep 22 - 25, 2001, Orford Church, Suffolk (U.K.)
Metronome - MET CD 1045 (59'02")

Come my lads, catch a 3; Consort Setts a 6 in F, in g minor, in B flat [1]; Hark jolly lads, catch a 3; Lyra viol trios in D, in d minor; The wise men were but seven, catch a 3; Whither go ye, catch a 3

Mark Levy, Veli-Markus Tapio, treble viol, lyra viol; Joanna Levine, tenor viol, lyra viol; Emilia Benjamin, tenor viol; Reiko Ichise, Alison McGillivray, bass viol; Gary Cooper, organ

(Sources: [1] Consorts in six Parts)

William Lawes was one of the main composers in England in the first half of the 17th century. He was held in very high esteem by King Charles I, himself a great lover and connoisseur of the arts. But it was the King himself who was ultimately responsible for the premature death of this great composer. As Mark Levy writes in the lines notes: "Not one content to fiddle at home, since after all he was more used to performing for one of the greatest monarchs in Europe, he chose to fight and was duly knock’d on the head in one of the last and most disastrous royalist manoeuvres, shot in the massacre at Rowton Heath on 24 September 1645, as the King watched from his vantage point atop the old city wall of Chester."

The fact that Lawes chose to fight, although he didn’t have to, is an indication of the close relationship between the composer and the king, but also tells us something about Lawes’ character – stubborn and recalcitrant - which is reflected in his music for viol consort. If there is anything that strikes in the pieces recorded here, it is Lawes’ unconventional musical language. This recording brings together three of the Consort Setts in 6 parts. These are basically suites, whose main sections are the fantazies, where we meet Lawes at his most unconventional. The strange and uncommon harmonies in some of these fantazies are quite astonishing. The second fantazy of the Consort Sett in F ends – after a sudden general pause – with a harmonic progression which can only be compared to the madrigals of Carlo Gesualdo. And the fantazy from the Consort Sett in g minor lacks any harmonic pattern, wavering from the conventional to the highly unusual and unexpected. The first fantazy from the Consort Sett in F reflects Lawes the composer of theatre music: it starts quietly, but becomes more and more passionate, and then returns to the tranquillity of the beginning.

This recording also contains all extant pieces for the lyra viol. "The lyra viol was a small bass viol which could be used in a huge variety of chordal tunings; its music was consequently notated in tablature so the player would always know where to put his fingers, whatever unlikely notes the strings were tuned to" (Mark Levy). Most music for the lyra viol was somewhat lighter in nature than music for the ‘normal’ viol. Although some music Lawes wrote belongs to that category, like Humor from the Lyra viol trio in D, even here Lawes breaks the rules by composing more serious works as well. To compensate for the lack of music for lyra viols by Lawes, Mark Levy has transcribed some of Lawes’ catches for three lyra viols. They were originally composed for three male voices to be sung in the tavern. The texts of these catches have been lost, so this is the only way they can be performed, and they do quite well in this form.

I have nothing but praise for this recording. This is simply great music, reflecting a very strong and intriguing musical personality. The ensemble playing is immaculate, the tone crisp and clear, and the full dynamic range of the instruments is exploited. The interpretation is dramatic where needed, or light-hearted when the music asks for relaxation. Strongly recommended.

N.B. This review first appeared on MusicWeb

Johan van Veen (© 2003)

Relevant links:
William Lawes

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