The work of William Lawes is tantaliing. Born in 1602, he died
prematurely - on 24 September 1645 - killed by a member of the
Roundhead army near Chester during his service to Charles I
and the Royalist cause during the Civil Wars. This provoked
the saw, "Will Lawes was slain by such whose wills were laws".
The loss to English music was huge. To hear but a few bars of
his sublime music for viol is to wonder how he would have grown
and how his enchanting harmonies, rich textures, original metres
and inventive combinations of instrumental colour would have
This excellent two-CD set from the Canadian company, Atma, presents
all of Lawes' Royall Consort Setts played by specialists Les
Voix Humaines. Probably best-appreciated during his life-time
for his dance and dramatic works, including masques, his chamber
consort music is perhaps the most profound, affecting, penetrating
and forward-looking of everything that he wrote. Lawes was well-known
as an expert player of the new 12-course theorbo, which was
a low-tuned lute with extra bass strings.
The Royall Consort Setts, however, are for two treble instruments
(violins or treble viols), two bass viols and a continuo of
two plucked stringed instruments. It's not hard to see with
such a combination just how rich and emotionally strong the
music was likely to be. Indeed it is; Les Voix Humaines are
totally in accord with the idiom and they never rush. Listen
to the Second Sett's, d minor, Pavan [CD.1 tr.5]…
no rush, no hurry; yet no lingering either.
They invite us to savour every bar, turn, phrase, segment where
ideas either develop or go through transition. Lawes was among
the first English composers to group his works into collections,
suites - or "Setts" as he called them. Consisting typically
of the dance movements with which we are now familiar - Aire,
Alman, Galliard, Corant, Saraband
- each Sett contains between two and five such. In itself this
presents contrast and variety. The way that Susie Napper, Les
Voix Humaines' director, has chosen to distribute the ten lovely
works across two CDs adds to this freshness - particularly since
all ten are written in only six keys, and six Setts in D.
The recordings, with differing personnel and made four years
apart, could presumably have fragmented this presentation of
Lawes' work. That hasn't happened. For sure, we notice changes
in dynamic, tempo and subject matter. The Sixth Sett's, D Major
Alman [CD.1 tr.9], for instance, is springy and contains
folk influences, whereas the Corant which follows it
is measured and almost French in delicacy and restraint.
The performers are intent on conveying the integrity, the sense
of wholeness and seriousness of purpose with which Lawes must
have gone into the enterprise. That is to say, they make a performance,
an 'event', or an 'occasion' out of this wonderfully melodic
and inventive music - and bring it fully to life. The 'echo'
movement of the same Sett [CD.1 tr.10] provides - with all its
effects or repetition and self/cross-references - the opportunity
for fey, specious mockery. Not for Les Voix Humaines. Theirs
is a serious, respectful approach. Yet it skirts mere reverence
in favour of doing the best by Lawes. They convey the depth
and beauty of what Lawes could do.
Comparisons have been made with the music of Monteverdi - especially
his (groundbreaking Fourth) book of madrigals, where the writing
in the top and bass voices is allowed to predominate over that
of the inner ones. The Canadian ensemble works this very well,
yet manages to adhere to a fullness and gentle emotional palette
which lacks nothing nor is ever forced. Technically, the six
players are impeccable from start to finish. We're not told
of their instruments, although their website suggests
that the principal gambists typically play a Barak Norman, London,
1703 and Bernard Prunier and Judith Kraft, Paris, 1982, after
The players do not seem to feel it necessary to emphasise those
aspects of Lawes' work which so eloquently presage those harmonic
developments without which the music of Locke, Gibbons and even
Purcell would surely not have been possible. These Royall Consorts,
composed in the 1630s, were understandably Lawes' best known
works during his lifetime. Les Voix Humaines play the music
as music. Nothing more is implied.
Finally, one of Les Voix Humaines' most significant achievements
on these CDs is to have 'reconstructed' Lawes' music sufficiently
successfully and with enough inner consistency, life and thrust
for it not to sound like the reconstruction which such music
from the era almost necessarily must. It's authentic and convincing
in equal measure. Nothing spectacular, gaudy or forced. Everything
suave, real and beautiful.
The acoustic of the two CD set is warm, inviting and highly
suitable to this gorgeous and wistful music, which is equally
vibrant and lacks any sense of indulgence. Repeated listening
is easy and is aided by the way in which the players' understanding
has been projected. The booklet - with notes by Bruce Haynes
- is a little on the short side; but it contains all the essentials.
This is a release to treasure - especially since it's the only
one in the current catalogue to gather all ten of the Royall
Consort Setts as a unified collection.