Monday, May 5, 2008

A Lawes Unto Themselves

William Lawes: Consorts in Four and Five Parts
Phantasm (plus Sarah Cunningham)
Channel Classics CCS 15698

Works for Five Voices:
  • Set in a
  • Set in F
  • Set in c
  • Set in C
  • Set in g

Works for Four Voices:
  • Fantazy in c (VdGS #108)
  • Aire [Fantazy] in C (VdGS #111)
  • Aire in c (VdGS #109)
  • Aire in C (VdGS #112)
  • Aire in c (VdGS #110)
  • Aire in C (VdGS #113)

Phantasm are a quartet of viols comprised of Americans Laurence Dreyfus and Wendy Gillespie, the Scot Jonathan Manson and Finn Markku Luolajan-Mikkola. Founded by Laurence Dreyfus in 1994, the group have been the Consort-in-Residence at Oxford University since 2005, and have won numerous awards, including a Grammophon Award for Best Non-Vocal Baroque Performance with their very first CD, 1995's recording of Purcell's Complete Fantasies for Viols (Simax - PSC 1124). They now have 11 recordings to their credit, including works by Byrd, John Jenkins and Orlando Gibbons among others.

This present release dates from 1999, and is one of two discs featuring music of William Lawes (1602-1645). This disc covers Consorts written for both four and five voices (for which the quartet is supplemented by Sarah Cunnningham).

There's a magnetism in the plaintive, organum-like sound of a group of gambas, something that taps into the foundation of musicality itself. After the human voice, these instruments provide about the most basic example of a sustained, blending tone, which then leads to an essential exposure to harmony and the fundamentals of counterpoint and voice leading. I find the gamba family sound much more appealing in general than the violin family, not because of its period-correctness but because it's a purer tone with a more interesting articulation. And it doesn't escape me that many of these pieces would translate very well to the organ (just as Fretwork so beautifully translated Bach's organ works to a gamba ensemble). Some of the sets are lugubrious and solemn, while others are quite rollicking, and would be fun to play (and see played). Belaboring a point I've made on numerous occasions before, here is yet another specialized niche musical concern based in or around London, a place which already sports the aforementioned Fretwork. You gotta love the place.

These pieces are perfectly played. I'm eager now to look into both their companion volume to this one of Lawes' Six-Part Consorts, as well as a couple volumes of John Jenkins. High marks on this one.

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