William LAWES (1602-1645) Complete Music for Solo Lyra Viol
Richard Boothby (viola da gamba)
rec. Royal College of Music, London, 12 and 19 January, 5 March, May-September 2015. DDD HARMONIA MUNDI HMU907625 [59:17]
William Lawes was one of the most interesting English composers between Byrd and Purcell. He and his older brother Henry were court composers for Charles I, who, despite his defects as a monarch, was a keen enthusiast for the arts. When the civil war broke out he took up arms on the Royalist side and, though supposed to be kept out of harm’s way, was killed by a Parliamentarian sniper. The king instituted special mourning for him and the poet Robert Herrick wrote an elegy. His music fell out of fashion but in recent years has been revived. His wonderfully adventurous viol consorts (Channel Classics CCS 15698 and 17498) and his delightful dance music The Royal Consort (review) have been successfully recorded by the viol consort Phantasm.
Here we have something rather more specialised. The lyra viol was the same size as a small bass viol but the bridge and spacing of the strings were altered to allow the easier playing of chords. Originally it also had an additional feature: a set of six metal strings running under the bridge and tuned to the same notes as the playing strings, which were made of gut. These would then vibrate in sympathy with the playing strings, an idea later taken up in the viola d’amore. The instrument was invented in England around the turn of the seventeenth century. It is possibly alluded to Shakespeare’s eighth sonnet:
Mark how one string, sweet husband to
Strikes each in each by mutual ordering.
However, the instrument was cumbersome to tune and by the 1660s had been generally abandoned. In its rather short heyday it built up a considerable repertory of which this recording is a good example.
The individual pieces are all very short, about a minute or so and the longest is just over three minutes. With a few exceptions they are in the dance forms common to the time: almains, sarabands and corantos, though they are not really meant to be danced to as the player needs to exercise a good deal of freedom in playing them. The writing is very varied, with considerable use of scrunchy chords, jagged rhythms, some pizzicato and, in the slower numbers, a melancholy chromatic harmony.
Richard Boothby is an accomplished exponent of this music. He is a member both of the Purcell Consort and of the viol consort Fretwork and has frequently recorded with both of these ensembles playing the viola da gamba. Here he plays a lyra viol made by Richard Mears dating from the time of Charles II, which is preserved in perfect condition in the Royal College of Music Museum Kessler Collection. It is a beautiful instrument both to hear and, as one can see from the picture in the booklet, to see. It does not appear to have the sympathetic strings I mentioned and certainly one cannot hear any on the disc. Boothby adopts a range of tunings for these pieces, which are listed but not explained. However, those interested can look up the technical detail here.
The pieces are delightful to listen to in short bursts. However, the fact that they are not organised into suites, and that they are individually so short, means that it is not wise to play the whole disc or large parts of it at the same time. I imagine that the pieces were written for a musical connoisseur, perhaps a gentleman amateur, who would play a few pieces to himself or to one or two others in a pause between other engagements. Despite their attractiveness there is something hidden and withdrawn about them: they are not really public music. This is a disc for the enthusiast who has already got the Lawes bug; newcomers should start elsewhere, with the consort music I listed at the beginning.