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!