William Lawes: Consorts in Six parts

Lawes Consort 6.jpg

Choc du Monde de la Musique (September 2002)

Varpu Haavisto,
tenor viol
Susanne Braumann, bass viol

Recording Date: 30 July -­ 1 August 2001
Recording Location: Ev. Lutheran Church, Juva (Finland)
Recording Producer: Jonathan Freeman - Attwood
Recording Engineer: Hein Dekker
Editor: C Jared SacksCover Design: David Louf, Utrecht
Cover painting: 'A Laughing Bravo with a Bass Viol and a Glass' by Hendrick Terbrugghen (1588 - 1629)


Having succeeded so well with their recording of William Lawes's five-part consorts setts (Channel Classics, 8/00), Phantasm have turned exclusively to the six-part repertory, inviting Varpu Haavisto and Susanne Braumann to augment their quartet.
Although a supporting organ part in Lawes's own hand survives for the six-part setts, it evidently doesn't always agree with the autograph score. Feeling that superfluous doubling was a positive hindrance to their music-making, Phantasm chose not to take up the option (provided, should it prove necessary, to maintain order and intonation).
Dreyfus has nevertheless purloined the occasional independent line from the keyboard part, originally meant momentarily to enrich the ensemble textures, and has skilfully (and surreptitiously) incorporated them into his own versions  was something, I wonder, added near the end of the first Fantazy of the C minor Sett?  seeking the best of both worlds.
Dreyfus writes passionately about the music, referring to 'a Dionysian frenzy hell-bent on breaking civilised taboos' and 'jubilant incantations', at last concluding that Lawes must have been the kind of composer 'who frankly doesn't give a damn what you think'.
So what do we hear? A subtly resonant, particularised landscape: in effect, an Elysian soundscape. Gone is the corporate consort sound we learned to relish in former decades. With seeming ease, the voice of each viol emerges and withdraws and withdraws on cue as the music unfolds with sublime logic and unquestionable momentum. For me the best setts are the two in minor keys, which offered Lawes a richer harmonic palette and the players greater expressive possibilities.
The harmonically bizarre first Fantazy of the C minor Sett must have excited 17th-century ears, which  if they were lucky  were treated as we are here to an excitingly paced second Fantazy, then an 'Inomine' ('sinewy' and sustained at first, then quicker in the second section, the plainchant exquisitely interwoven and at the same time plain for all to hear), and finally a vibrant Aire, resplendent in its swaggering repeated notes and syncopated dash. Whether it would make so vivid an impression from another ensemble is doubtful.
Dreyfus's unselfconscious hyperbolic enthusiasm aside, these are beautifully thought-out, sympathetic performances, worthy of a cultivated monarch and the composer's quatercentenary. It is unfortunate that [the Concordia and Phantasm] recordings should have appeared in such close proximity. Connoisseurs of consort playing can't help but be struck by the greater impact of the music from Dreyfus and his colleagues: Phantasm is truly in a class of its own.

Julie Anne Sadie, Feb 2002 - published in Gramophone

Counterpoint is a wonderful thing, and seldom more wonderful than in the hands of 17th century English composer William Lawes. If you think that music for viol consort usually sounds like a heard of dyspeptic cows, you're in for a treat. This is fascinating stuff, fabulously rich, moving, emotionally gripping, and played to a passionate fare-thee-well by Phantasm. Each of these five suites (or "sets", as Lawes called them) contains a different selection of movements, comprising Pavans, Fantazies, Aires, and In nomines. Some contain three pieces, others four. Variety and contrast are the composer's watchwords, and with six players to work with, he's able to construct textures of a harmonic richness and polyphonic complexity that offer an almost unlimited range of expressive possibilities.
There isn't a single movement without something special to say, but I have to mention a few: the G minor set's long opening Pavan (the only one in the collection) and delicious concluding Aire; the amazing harmonies over repeated note patterns in the C major set's central Fantazy; the gorgeous first Fantazy in the F major set (a sort of 17th century answer to Barber's bittersweet Adagio for Strings); and the whole of the strikingly intense C minor set. The players of Phantasm draw a sound from their instruments as richly colored as the music itself, and while they omit the organ continuo you certainly won't miss it, and the gain in polyphonic clarity certainly compensates. They're also fabulously recorded--warmly, but with none of that Grand Central Station public bathroom reverb that afflicts too many early music discs. Indeed, the sound adds considerably to the immediacy of music that offers visceral excitement and a communicative directness outstanding for any era. Not to be missed!

David Hurwitz, Feb 2002 - published in Classics Today

David Skudlik