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Fanfare Magazine: 36:2 (11-12/2012)
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0722056237321 (V33)
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Reviewer: James A. Altena

This review begins with a cautionary advisory. William Lawes (1602–45) has two distinct sets of 10 viol consorts to his credit. One is the set of 10 Royall Consorts recorded here, scored for four viols and two continuo instruments. The other consists of two sets of five consorts, scored respectively for five and six viols and continuo. Unfortunately, ArkivMusic and many other online sources for CDs indiscriminately lump them all together under a single heading as the same sets. For the record, the suites in the two sets are in different keys. The Royall Consorts have three sets in D Major, three in D Minor, and one apiece in A Minor, B-Major, C Major, and F Major; the five- and six-part consorts have two sets apiece in C Major, C Minor, F Major, and G Minor, and one apiece in A Minor and B-Major. Likewise, the number of movements in the two groups of sets also differs; those in the Royall Consorts have five to seven, whereas the other consort sets have only three or four.

Much of Lawes’s music still remains unpublished, and there is no single comprehensive edition with anything so convenient as assigned LWV numbers to distinguish particular works from one another. Originally dating from the 1620s, the Royall Consorts exist in two different versions from the composer’s own hand; both versions were published in editions by musicologist David Pinto in 1995. The first or “old” version is scored for the now-standard string quartet voice distribution of two treble, one tenor, and one bass viol. The second or “new” version recorded here dates from the 1630s, and is rescored for two treble and two bass viols with basso continuo. The tenor and bass lines were reworked by Lawes to have the two bass viols periodically exchange them while reflecting portions of the continuo part as well. The changes show both a concern to balance the lower instrumental lines more equally with the higher ones, and awareness of the growing use of continuo parts in music composed in Italy. While Lawes specified use of two theorbos for those parts in his revised scores (he himself was a theorbo player), later manuscript copies by other hands would call for use of a harpsichord instead. In the bibliography to the New Grove article on Lawes, both versions of the Royall Consorts are numbered as 1–67, for the total number of movements contained in the final versions of the 10 sets. Following these entries are the listings for the other consort sets: nos. 68–83 for the five sets of five-part consorts for two treble plus one alto, one tenor, and one bass viol, and nos. 84–100 for the five sets of six-part consorts scored for two treble, one alto, one tenor, and two bass viols.

There are at least two previous recordings of the Royall Consorts, by Monica Huggett and Sonnerie (formerly “The Greate Consort”) on ASV, and by the Purcell Quartet with theorbists Paul O’Dette and Nigel North on Chandos. In interpretive approach, the present set is far closer to the latter than the former, as suggested by the overall timings: 129:56 for this version and 127:12 for the Purcell versus 137:45 for Huggett, with the greatest difference occurring in the Pavanne movements that open each of the 10 sets. The ASV discs were reviewed and recommended by Brian Robins in Fanfare 21: 1 and 27:3, and I concur with his judgment. The Chandos set has not been reviewed in these pages, but I found it a disappointing effort from an otherwise estimable group, with unpleasantly harsh string tone, choppy phrasing, and little blend between the strings and the two star theorbists.

Unfortunately, both of the previous sets are out of print; fortunately, these Atma performances are of a high caliber. Les Voix Humaines consists of two gambists, Susie Napper and Margaret Little —previously renowned for their recordings of duets of Sainte-Colombe—joined by other instrumentalists as needed to form a larger ensemble. Here their partners are David Greenberg and Ingrid Mathews on Baroque violins and Stephen Stubbs and Sylvain Bergeron on theorbos. The ensemble has previously recorded the Harp Consorts of Lawes as well. Though I prefer the more soft-grained, silvery sound and more relaxed tempi of Huggett and her ensemble, Les Voix Humaines nonetheless plays with a fine blend of instrumental voices and sure command of both technique and style. The recorded sound is somewhat on the astringent side; more warmth would have been preferable. If you collect viol consort repertoire and do not already have these works in your collection, then this release is well worth acquiring and recommended accordingly.

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