Lawes’ consort setts in five and six parts represent such a critical part of the viol consort literature that the release of a new recording by an important ensemble is always a keenly awaited event. And now, after recordings that have embraced the consort music of Jenkins, Ward and Byrd, Phantasm has turned its attention to this cornerstone of the literature. Although this recording does not lack for companions in the discography – recordings by Fretwork (1990, available on Virgin Veritas) and Hespèrion XXI (2002, Alia Vox – a recording making use of violins and pardessus de viole for the upper parts in addition to standard treble viols) provide valuable contributions to the discography of Lawes – this recording to my mind represents the most polished and sophisticated reading of these consort setts available.
The principal challenge of Lawes, and indeed of much consort music – taking responsibility at the individual level for the whole shape of the work, knowing when to be present and when not to be – is more than capably met in these performances. The familiarity of all players with all of the parts of the composition oozes from every phrase; at the same time, the physiognomy of the whole composition never recedes from view. Phantasm willingly embraces the whole gamut of Lawes’ expression. The paven of the G minor six-part sett glows with an intense severity; the scattered fragments of themes at the start of C major five-part sett find a radiant unity by the end of the movement; the first fantasy of the F major six-part sett fairly glows; several of the aires are enlivened by a Biber-like skittishness and coquetry. Phantasm also never backs away from the barbarity of certain movements: no shying away from the angularity of the fantasy that opens the C minor five-part sett nor from the cross-relations of the opening fantasy of the A minor five-part sett for this ensemble. In fact, the C minor fantasy feels as if it has
been carved with the sculptor’s chisel from intractable marble – this is a truly gripping performance.
Perhaps the most significant achievement of these performances, though, is the commitment to the works from the listener’s point of view; although individual motifs and lines are allowed to shine, each movement is welded into a coherent whole, often enlivened and underlined with a sense of Baroque drama, especially in those arresting moments of unexpected harmonic shift that mark many of the Lawes consorts.
A highly recommended recording and a must for the collections of all lovers of this music.