William Lawes’s music is certainly an acquired taste. But once acquired it can easily turn into addiction. It pulls you into a shadowy emotional world, full of wayward fantasy and dancing, courtly gravity. Often the music is touched with John Dowland’s melancholy, but clothed in a fascinating, intricate weave that Dowland never achieved.
Lawes had a short but intense life. He was killed in 1645 aged 43 at the battle of Chester, where he fought on the Royalist side (“slain by such whose wills were laws”, said an epitaph, which must win the prize for the most lugubrious pun ever).
Charles I mourned the man he called the “Father of Music”. Lawes’s genius is best revealed in the 10 Consorts to the Organ. They are written for a family or “consort” of those grave, reedy-toned bowed instruments known as viols, together with a small organ. Laurence Dreyfus, a brilliant writer on music as well as a fine viol player, leads a performance of seven of them with the viol consort Phantasm.
It is worth comparing this recording with one made 10 years ago by the Catalan group Hesperion XXI (still available on Alia Vox AV9823A+B). This has all 10 sets, which for an addict like me is a strong point in its favour. And it reveals Lawes’s sonorous magic especially well. You can really savour the delicious low tangle of the bass and tenor viols.
Nevertheless, this new recording wins the palm. The balance between viols and organ is far superior, and the group is more attuned to the emotional extremes under the music’s grave surface. Their performance of the Aire from the Set a6 in G is nearly twice as fast as the Catalans’, and is gripped by an astonishing, stinging intensity.