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William LAWES (1602-1645)
The Royal Consort
Daniel Hyde (organ)
Elizabeth Kenny (theorbo)
Emily Ashton (tenor viol)
Phantasm/Laurence Dreyfus (treble viol)
rec. Chapel of Magdalen College. Oxford, 2013/14. DDD/DSD
Reviewed as 24/96 download from hyperion-records.co.uk (also available in mp3 and 16-bit lossless and from linnrecords.com additionally on SACD and in 24/192 format, all with pdf booklet).
LINN RECORDS CKD470 SACD [73:26 + 70:57]

Comparative version
Royal Consort Setts 1-10: CHAN0584 - Purcell Quartet with Nigel North, Paul O’Dette (theorbo), Susanna Pell (viol) – rec.1994 [126:12] – 2 CDs or download from theclassicalshop.net.

The brothers William and Henry Lawes were among the foremost musicians of the early seventeenth century. Henry composed the music for Milton’s Comus and was the recipient of one of his sonnets. Had William, a staunch Royalist supporter in the English Civil War, not died young at the Siege of Chester, we might well be remembering him alongside Purcell as one of the century’s greatest musicians. Vocal music by both brothers can be found on a recording of Henry’s Ayres (Mirare MIR177) which I reviewed in DL News 2014/8 and in a Harmonia Mundi release, The Rags of Time (HMU907257), which I mentioned in the same review.

If you are looking for an inexpensive introduction to William Lawes’ consort music, there’s a good selection on Naxos 8.550601: the Rose Consort of Viols with Timothy Roberts (organ), Jacob Heringman and David Miller (lute and theorbo) perform two of the Royal Consort Setts (suites), three consort setts from other collections, three pieces for two lutes and a Paven (pavane) in g minor. (Sample/stream/download from Qobuz, no booklet).

That taster, however, may well lead you to explore Lawes’ music further, in which case you would be well served by both the Chandos and Linn recordings. Actually they are not strictly comparable: the Chandos features the revised six-part consorts whereas the Linn employs the earlier, leaner four viols plus theorbo scoring which Laurence Dreyfus claims in the notes as greatly superior.

The other difference is that whereas Chandos offer just the ten Setts of the Royal Consort in numerical order, Linn vary the order and include three other works, including three Setts to the Organ which could not be included in their very fine earlier CD of Lawes’ music (CKD399: Recording of the Month – review and DL Roundup July 12/2).

I’ve already mentioned Laurence Dreyfus’s notes for his categorical statement that the six-part scoring with violins spoils the textures of these works. That’s not the only controversial assertion: at the outset he nails his colours to the mast in defying Dr. Burney’s description of this music as dull, asserting it as ‘one of the greatest collections of ensemble dance music ever composed’ alongside Dowland’s Lachrimę, Rameau’s ballets, Bach’s Suites and the music of Johann Strauss II. I’m not sure that I go along entirely with either of these assertions: though I greatly enjoyed the music as his group presents it, I also enjoyed the Chandos performances of the 6-part versions and I’m not sure that I shall listen to either quite as often as the other dance-related music to which he refers, to which I’d also add Prętorius’s Terpsichore.

Whichever version you choose, this is very enjoyable and varied music. Both ensembles bring out the sheer delight of the various movements and though the 4-viol version theoretically brings greater clarity, there’s no problem in distinguishing all six parts on the Chandos album. If anything the new Phantasm recording makes the music sound not sparer but fuller in tone. I’m no shakes as a dancer but both recordings make me want to skip along without making the music sound at all facile.

It’s not possible to do an exact like-for-like comparison because Lawes added extra bars and whole extra movements to the six-part versions: Sett No.1, for example, which runs to 6:47 on Linn is 12:15 on Chandos. That also means that the difference in playing time is less than you might expect, despite the addition of four other works on Linn.

Both are well recorded. The Linn scores by its availability in 24-bit sound – 24/192 even, if you are willing to pay for it – and on SACD. In the past when I have been able to compare the HD stereo tracks on a Linn SACD with the 24/96 download I have found no discernable difference between the two.

Controversial assertions notwithstanding, I found Dreyfus’s 14 pages of notes very informative. Bruce Wood’s notes in the Chandos booklet are shorter but also very valuable.

This is a case of paying your money and taking your pick. Unfortunately I can’t point you to a way of comparing the two. If you subscribe to the very valuable Naxos Music Library, you’ll find the Linn, but not the Chandos, there – but don’t be tempted to press the iTunes purchase button when you will find better quality downloads from Hyperion and Linn.

If you follow my advice to obtain one of these recordings of the Royal Consort music you may well be looking for more music by William Lawes. An obvious choice would be the earlier Linn recording of the Setts to the Organ which I’ve mentioned. Another option would be to obtain his more reflective eight Fantasia-Suites for two violins, bass viol and organ: the Purcell Quartet on Chandos CHAN0552, CD or download from theclassicalshop.net, or London Baroque on Harmonia Mundi Musique d’Abord HMA1901423, no longer available on disc – sample/stream from Qobuz or download inexpensively from prestoclassical.co.uk.

Brian Wilson

Footnote
Since writing the above I have received the physical SACDs.  As I anticipated, having compared Linn SACDs and 24-bit downloads before, the HD stereo layer on the discs is virtually indistinguishable from the download.  If there is a slight advantage in openness to the SACDs it’s probably attributable to the fact that the DACs in my SACD and blu-ray players are marginally better than the Dragonfly DAC which I use with my computer.

There’s one grumble about the SACDs which I must mention: the booklet is so tightly wedged into its pocket within the triptych which houses the discs that I found it impossible to get it in and out without tearing it.  Otherwise this is a very desirable release in any format.  You should be able to find the SACDs from Amazon UK and Amazon US for rather less than the £18 which Linn and Hyperion charge for the 24/96 download but if you are happy with 16-bit lossless the download is less expensive (£10).

Details
CD1
Royal Consort Sett No.1 in d minor [6:47]
Royal Consort Sett No.4 in D [13:37]
Royal Consort Sett No.3 in d minor [8:34]
Royal Consort Sett No.5 in D [10:58]
Royal Consort Sett No.8 in C [7:08]
Royal Consort Sett No.9 in F [14:56]
IV Sett a5 in F ‘to the Organ’ [11:05]
CD2
Royal Consort Sett No.2 in d minor [12:15]
Royal Consort Sett No.6 in D [6:12]
Royal Consort Sett No.7 in a minor [8:52]
Royal Consort Sett No.10 in B flat [10:54]
Sett a4 in d minor [8:53]
X Sett a6 in C ‘to the Organ’ [13:12]
VII Sett a6 in C ‘to the Organ’ [10:12]

 




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