William Lawes (1602-1645) spent most of his professional life as a much loved court composer to Charles I. He died from a bullet fired at the Battle of Rowton Moor near Chester, having joined the Royalist army at the start of Civil War. All of which is fascinating, Lawes’s life overshadowed by the quality of his musical output. The pieces for viol consort on this gorgeous Linn release are consistently astonishing. It’s not just Phantasm’s luxuriant sound – listening to a well-played viol ensemble is like bathing in warm chocolate – more that Lawes’s music is so endlessly entertaining. It’s full of harmonic quirks, cadences which resolve in unexpected ways and the occasional discord fruity enough to raise even a 21st-century eyebrow. The package is rendered complete by erudite, exuberant sleeve notes by Phantasm’s director Lawrence Dreyfus, whose enthusiasm for Lawes’s music is intoxicating.
Lawes’s Fantazy a5 from the C major set of pieces is presented as a musical game of tennis; lines bouncing back and forth between instruments. An Aire from the G major set becomes a two-minute drama infused with “the smell of muskets and roar of canons”, with Dreyfus mentioning “a hyperventilated fracas of dissonant false relations”. The music is worthy of the hyperbole; one tiny piece features an Ivesian collision of dance tunes, and the Fantazy a6 from the F major set closes with music which will alarm, astonish and delight. Sensational performances from Phantasm, aided and abetted by Daniel Hyde’s discreet, sprightly organ playing.