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Fanfare Magazine: 39:2 (11-12/2015) 
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Reviewer: Jerry Dubins


It seems a shame to credit the “extras” with superscripts in the above headnote without naming the viol players that make up the core of the Phantasm Consort. So here they are: Emilia Benjamin, treble; Jonathan Manson, tenor; Mikko Perkola, tenor and bass; Markku Luolajan-Mikola, bass; and of course, Laurence Dreyfus, who plays treble and conducts, and who founded the ensemble in 1994.

At first glance, it appears that Phantasm has recorded these works before, some 15 years ago, for Channel Classics. Released on individual discs, they were reviewed by Brian Robins in 24:5 and 26:2. According to the booklet note, however, it is not the case that this new Linn recording is a do-over. William Lawes (1602–1645) left a voluminous amount of music for viol consorts comprised of between three and six voices, and all in just a handful of closely related keys; so the works are not easily distinguished by title. The 10 suites given on the current release constitute the collection of Royal Consort Setts and are here recorded complete for the first time, or so sayeth the enclosed booklet.

I was a bit dubious, as I retrieved from my shelf Chandos’s 1994 two-disc set of these same works performed by the Purcell Quartet, joined by Nigel North and Paul O’Dette. Clearly printed on the jewel case cover and the booklet front were the words, “The Royall Consort Suites, premiere recording of the complete suites.” Since both ensembles—the Purcell Quartet and Phantasm—and labels—Chandos and Linn—are of British provenance, it’s hard to imagine that the latter wouldn’t be aware of the former. So, there had to be some explanation for Phantasm’s staking its claim to being the first to record these suites in their entirety. One has to drill down into Phantasm’s album note to find the answer.

Lawes composed two versions of the Royal Consort Suites, one for a foursome of viols (two trebles, a tenor, and a bass) with a theorbo for bass reinforcement, thus anticipating the string quartet; and it’s this version Phantasm has recorded complete for the first time. The second and expanded version adds four introductory fantaszias or pavanes and four other lighter dances to the collection, and the scoring calls for two violins, two bass viols, and two theorbos. It’s this sextet version, including the extra eight dance numbers, that the Purcell Quartet with North and O’Dette offers on Chandos. Not to be accused of shortchanging the buyer, Phantasm makes up for the loss of the eight dances that are not part of the quartet plus theorbo version by including three of Lawes’s suites for organ accompanied by tenor viol, which are not part of the 10 viol suites that make up The Royal Consort Setts.

Other than the fact that the Purcell ensemble and Phantasm are performing two different versions of the collected suites, there’s another difference between their recordings that bears remarking on. The Purcell Quartet presents the suites in numerical order. Phantasm presents them in a sequence I tried to make some sense of, but eventually gave up on. At first, I thought the order might have something to do with keeping closely related keys together so as to avoid having to retune instruments if some non-equal temperament tuning system were being used. But that didn’t compute because the only keyboard instrument involved here is the organ in the three organ suites interspersed among the viol suites, and no one but an organ builder is going to retune an organ, if that’s even possible without somehow altering the lengths of all of its pipes. The viols and theorbo being string instruments and therefore not of fixed pitches can play in any key without retuning, so I’m at a loss to explain Phantasm’s programming order.

Though different in points of musical content and style, Lawes’s dance suites may be seen as the English counterpart to the dances of his close French contemporary, Jacques Champion de Chambonnières (1601/2–1672). Lawes’s dance movements, however, are not fit for dancing, and even in his own day, he was criticized for his overly polyphonic textures, unusual harmonic digressions, and above all, his highly irregular, non-symmetrical, un-danceable phrase lengths of nine, 11, and 13 bars. While such music may have “befuddled dancers,” as Phantasm’s note observes, it doesn’t befuddle the ears.

An acquaintance of mine once said that music before 1600 is about the world as it should be, while music after 1600 is about the world as it is. I would put it a bit differently. Much early music has about it a characteristic sound that suffuses it with a quality of “forever-ness.” Chronologically, Lawes’s Royal Consort Suites for the court of Charles I date from around 1620, or about 20 years past the 1600 divide, but the music still has at least one foot planted firmly in pre-1600, late Renaissance style, and as a result, it’s illuminated from within by that unmistakable “forever-ness” glow.

Others have recorded some or all of these suites in one version or another—the Purcell Quartet, Monica Huggett with the Great Consort, and quite recently, Les Voix Humaines; and while I’m sure they all have their strengths, I’m afraid the only other version I have for comparison is the aforementioned Purcell Quartet with Nigel North and Paul O’Dette, and I’m not sure how enlightening such a comparison would be, since the ensembles are of different sizes—four vs. six—of different instrumentation—treble viols vs. violins—and the works are of different composition—the Purcell’s version containing the added dance movements. However, I can state a personal preference, and it’s for this new recording. The evenness of tone and harmonious homogeneity of the four-viol Phantasm ensemble lend an intimacy and feeling of authenticity to these performances that speaks to me of a world that probably never was but one that could and should be, and it spirits me away to a time and place without end.


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