Fans of English consort music will be familiar with Fretwork’s polished recordings of four of William Lawes’s Setts a5 and will welcome Phantasm’s sparkling new recording, which, in addition, includes a fifth Sett a5 in C major as well as several pieces a4. Joined here by Sarah Cunningham for the five-part works, Phantasm does without an organ accompaniment, but not in any way to the detriment of the music. Indeed, without an organ doubling, the parts are naturally more evenly balanced.
In tune with the current fashion among viol players (I am think here of Paolo Pandolfo in particular) to reveal in print something of their personal response to the music they have recorded, Phantasm’s leader, Laurence Dreyfus, has included here an enthusiastic and highly articulate memoir in lieu of the usual insert-note. He writes with authority of Lawes’s ‘dazzling and dangerous music’ and draws attention to its ‘craggy melodies, awkward imitations, wilful contrapuntal errors and strange harmonies’. But if these epithets aptly characterise the music, it is Dreyfus’s description of what happens as Lawes’ music unfolds that is so arresting: ‘For whilst Lawes is crafting the most complex set of audible, overlapping dialogues, he is also compelling the harmonic motion forward like a master coachman driving a team of trusty steeds’. This equally well represents Phantasm’s team approach to the music.
Its performances, technically and stylistically superb, are also intellectually and musically persuasive. The opening phrase of the A minor Fantazy seems almost magically to emerge out of the mists of time, investing the recording with a kind of historical authority. The ensuing tempos are generally quick and superbly judged, and always in the service of the wordless dramas that unfold and logically resolve at the final cadences. This recording sets new standards for consort playing. We must hope for more.