With a little bit of work, Matthew Locke could have been the Gesualdo of English consort music. He certainly had those tendencies toward rule-bending structural and harmonic thinking that occasionally creates an ear-tweaking moment or smile-inducing episode in these engaging works for four viols. Coming along as he did at the end of the "viol period" - he died in 1677 - Locke neither strictly followed tradition nor offered anything substantially innovative to the genre; rather, he just did his own thing, which sometimes seems disjointed, undeveloped, or just plain capricious. Not that these pieces aren't enjoyable, sonorous, melodically interesting, or otherwise just plain entertaining.
For the most part, the writing is idiomatic, varied in texture, tempo, and color, and alternately somber and lively (mostly the latter). At the beginning of the Suite No. 2, just as we're settling in to an up-tempo dance, the tempo slows, then speeds--and without warning stops and falls face down in a totally different key. Then the music changes completely--are we in another piece altogether? Similarly, at the end of Suite No. 4 we are happily jostled and jolted from one set of rhythmic figures to another, interrupted with sudden stops and starts. By the last bar we feel like someone who's been spun around with a blindfold on and suddenly turned loose, slightly disoriented but enjoying the experience nevertheless.
The four viol players of the group Phantasm obviously are enjoying themselves immensely, catering to Locke's quirky yet controlled inventions with more animated articulation than we usually get from these instruments. The sound, from the ideal and oft-used venue of England's Forde Abbey and engineered by veteran Mike Hatch, is, well, pretty close to ideal. This is not great-with-a-capital-G music; but it's fun, and definitely worth a visit.