Having succeeded so well with their recording of William Lawes's five-part consorts setts (Channel Classics, 8/00), Phantasm have turned exclusively to the six-part repertory, inviting Varpu Haavisto and Susanne Braumann to augment their quartet.
Although a supporting organ part in Lawes's own hand survives for the six-part setts, it evidently doesn't always agree with the autograph score. Feeling that superfluous doubling was a positive hindrance to their music-making, Phantasm chose not to take up the option (provided, should it prove necessary, to maintain order and intonation).
Dreyfus has nevertheless purloined the occasional independent line from the keyboard part, originally meant momentarily to enrich the ensemble textures, and has skilfully (and surreptitiously) incorporated them into his own versions ­ was something, I wonder, added near the end of the first Fantazy of the C minor Sett? ­ seeking the best of both worlds.
Dreyfus writes passionately about the music, referring to 'a Dionysian frenzy hell-bent on breaking civilised taboos' and 'jubilant incantations', at last concluding that Lawes must have been the kind of composer 'who frankly doesn't give a damn what you think'.
So what do we hear? A subtly resonant, particularised landscape: in effect, an Elysian soundscape. Gone is the corporate consort sound we learned to relish in former decades. With seeming ease, the voice of each viol emerges and withdraws and withdraws on cue as the music unfolds with sublime logic and unquestionable momentum. For me the best setts are the two in minor keys, which offered Lawes a richer harmonic palette and the players greater expressive possibilities.
The harmonically bizarre first Fantazy of the C minor Sett must have excited 17th-century ears, which ­ if they were lucky ­ were treated as we are here to an excitingly paced second Fantazy, then an 'Inomine' ('sinewy' and sustained at first, then quicker in the second section, the plainchant exquisitely interwoven and at the same time plain for all to hear), and finally a vibrant Aire, resplendent in its swaggering repeated notes and syncopated dash. Whether it would make so vivid an impression from another ensemble is doubtful.
Dreyfus's unselfconscious hyperbolic enthusiasm aside, these are beautifully thought-out, sympathetic performances, worthy of a cultivated monarch and the composer's quatercentenary. It is unfortunate that [the Concordia and Phantasm] recordings should have appeared in such close proximity. Connoisseurs of consort playing can't help but be struck by the greater impact of the music from Dreyfus and his colleagues: Phantasm is truly in a class of its own. 


Feb 2002


Julie Anne Sadie

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