William Lawes: The Royal Consort

Phantasm (+Elizabeth Kenny theorbo, Daniel Hyde organ, Emily Ashton tenor viol)
144′ (2 CDs)
Linn CKD470
+sett a4 in d, IV set a5 in F, VII set a6 in C & X set a6 in c

This is a complete recording of the Royal Consort in what some regard as its earlier version, for four viols and continuo: two trebles, a tenor and a bass. In his extended essay in the booklet, Laurence Dreyfus argues persuasively that this version is, in fact, superior to the ‘later’ version (for two trebles, two division basses and two theorbos), and is, in his words “one of the greatest collections of ensemble dance music ever composed.”

Them’s fightin’ words, leading one to expect an exceptional performance, and, my goodness, this is what we get. The first Sett in d is quite brief, no one movement is as long as two minutes. They play it as a continuous movement, each section running smoothly into the next, with a developing vigour which is intoxicating, the theorbo strumming like a guitar in the final Saraband. Then follows the Sett in D, and its beautiful, statuesque Paven, nearly six minutes long. Its unexpected harmonies and poignant melodies are very moving; what a contrast to the playful interchanges of the Aire which succeeds it.

It is tempting to describe each movement of each Sett, such is the variety of invention. It is marvellous listening, because of this, and because of the superb playing. They respond to the quicksilver changes of mood between movements, within movements and even within phrases. The trebles, never shrill, pay particular attention to balance, so that with the fullness in the sound, the tenor’s contribution always present, despite the oft-quoted remark of Edward Lowe that Lawes’ revision was because the tenor could not be heard in performance. Dreyfus considers him quite wrong in this, as the violins in the ‘revised’ version would be far more dominant. Taking him up on this, I listened again to my 20-year-old recording of the ‘Royall Consort’ by the Purcell Consort, playing baroque violins (what would it be like with the lighter-strung earlier model?). They too were very careful to balance with the division viols, and the texture remained satisfyingly open and clear.

But comparisons aside, this performance is outstanding. The playing is so expressive, wonderfully lyrical in the Pavens and Ayres, boisterous in the Sarabands. They use vibrato judiciously, the texture never clouded. The tone is always crystal bright, the articulation beautifully controlled, ranging from boisterously detached to sinuous legato, the theorbo (Elizabeth Kenny) matching their every move.

All who write about these pieces agree that they were written to be listened to, and surely never as background music – they command your attention. Dreyfus points out that, while they couldn’t be danced to unless perhaps to specific choreographies, the spirit of the dance is always present in the music, and in the playing. And, as one would expect, this is delivered with virtuosic control and vigour imparting an infectious joie de vivre.

It is generous as well, with the addition of three sets, one à5 and two à6, to the organ (Daniel Hyde), thereby offering another and important perspective on Lawes’ musical personality.
The case is unusually attractive, featuring Sir Anthony van Dyck’s extraordinary and revealing portrait of Charles I in three positions. It opens out to three segments to accommodate the two discs and the booklet. Each segment has an enlargement of one of the three aspects of his head and shoulders – very compelling visually. The booklet notes are full, in English only. I would hope that the essay is available in other languages, as everyone should hear this – an outstanding recording of outstanding music, fully living up to the expectations engendered by the notes.

Robert Oliver