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Phantasm - William Lawes - Musicweb International


17 September 2012
Musicweb International
Dominy Clements

Phantasm has championed the work of William Lawes's elder contemporary John Jenkins in the past, and that from more than one source. They have also recorded Gibbons, William Byrd on the Simax label and John Ward for Linn in 2009, and most recently more Byrd for Linn in 2011. The viol consort is beefed up here with the addition of a chamber organ which Lawes uses mostly to double the viol parts, sometimes also giving it independent passages which can generate striking contrasts of timbre.

William Lawes served as one of Charles I's valued musicians, becoming known to the court before an official appointment as ‘musician in ordinary'. The ‘viol consorts to the organ' would have been intended for the private environment of the King's Privy Apartments, a prestigious responsibility which also allowed Lawes freedom from the aesthetic conventions expected by his musical peers. Laurence Dreyfus' excellent booklet notes tell us at every opportunity about Lawes's irreverent approach to composing, and his "zany universe" and "wayward musical personality." Without a good deal of expertise in the conventions of the time it might be hard for lay listeners to detect Lawes's lawlessness, as the degrees of naughtiness are often either subtly integrated or demand a certain amount of foreknowledge, even though you are likely to sense that strange things are happening as the programme progresses. Help is at hand however. Dreyfus is at pains to point out as many references as possible in his booklet notes on each piece, adding in timings so that we can listen and nod in sage agreement, learning as we go about the marvels to be found.

Marvels and masterpieces indeed there are to be found here, and too numerous to name. Many an inspiring session can be had with this release, and the booklet becomes hard to put down with all of those interpretations and revelations being something for which the mind becomes increasingly hungry. With performances as deliciously expressive as these we can perhaps allow Dreyfus a little poetic license in some of his descriptions, certainly since they will no doubt have informed the manner of performance. With results like these, who's complaining?

Just take, more or less at random, the Paven a5 on track 12. There's a little descending interval which occurs at 3:13 and 4:15, when carried through to its logical imitative conclusion creates crashingly ‘wrong' dissonances. You can just imagine Lawes discovering this and rubbing his hands with glee at the way it works and how it can be resolved. What, take it out? Never! Dreyfus personifies Lawes's music in his descriptions, bringing the pieces to life in ways which enhance the recording no end. We have mad pedal points, musicians behaving badly, and the smell of sheep and muskets to name just a few. If you want a breath-taking ‘modern music' angle have a listen to the Aire a6,track 16's "hyperventilated fracas of dissonant false relations." Another fun and fascinating moment can be found in the Fantazy a6 at track 20, where you can find "a fatal harmonic shock" which is followed by "some of the most dissonant music he ever wrote, mixing modes promiscuously." If this doesn't make you want to find out more then I fear there is nothing else to be done.

With a superb recording both in stereo and SACD surround this is a release to be acquired and treasured. William Lawes is by all accounts an admirably individualistic composer, and for all fans of viol consort music this is a ‘must have' release. I would go as far as to say it should have this status for all collectors of good music in any era. If you've never explored this genre, this recording will open your eyes and ears and have you baying for more.
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