LAWES: Complete Music for Lyra Viol – Richard Boothby, lyra viol – HM

WILLIAM LAWES: Complete Music for Solo Lyra Viol – Richard Boothby, lyra viol – HM 907625, 59:37 (6/10/16) ****:

Elegant “musical recreations” from the Court of Charles I played on the most famous surviving contemporary instrument on loan from Royal College of Music.

William Lawes was the principal court composer for Charles I, his official title “musician in ordinary for lutes and voices.” He composed secular masques as well as sacred music for private worship. Viol consorts represented the most popular amateur music of the day, and Lawes brought this form to a new height. Perhaps his greatest innovation was his “broken consort” ensemble, which consisted of a violin, viola da gamba, theorbo and harp, the next generation’s harp consort. The handful of dance suites written for this unique instrumentation are among the greatest achievements of English 17th century music. (A recent recording by New Old Albion on Brilliant Classics gives us a splendid reading of these works.)

When the Civil War broke out, Lawes signed on with the Royalists. A brave cavalier, he charged into battle at the rout of Rowton Heath. He took a bullet to the head, and thus ended the career of the court’s finest musical mind. One can only imagine how exquisitely his genius would have flourished in the court of the Merry Monarch, Charles II, upon the restoration of the crown in 1660, but this was not to be. The famous poet Robert Herrick wrote this tribute “To Robert Lawes, a rare musician”:

Should I not put on blacks, when each one here
Comes with his cypress and devotes a tear?
Should I not grieve, my Lawes, when every lute,
Viol, and voice is by thy loss struck mute?
Thy loss, brave man! whose numbers have been hurl’d,
And no less prais’d than spread throughout the world.
Some have thee call’d Amphion; some of us
Nam’d thee Terpander, or sweet Orpheus:
Some this, some that, but all in this agree,
Music had both her birth and death with thee.

The recording under review presents a good sample of the works Lawes penned for the solo lyra viol, a smallish bass viol with gut strings whose style and repertoire were already long established in England. Some earlier designs included sympathetic metal strings. This particular instrument was made by the most famous viol builder of the era just after Lawes death, Robert Meares. Richard Boothby was lucky to borrow this instrument from museum of the Royal College of Music. The liner notes present a good photo of this magnificent and historically important instrument.

The music consists of short dance movements, mostly entitled Almain, Coranto, and Saraband. They are further designated by obscure keys, such as Harpway flat, Eighths, and High Harpway flat, terms presumably understood by contemporary viol players. For those conditioned to the sound of the cello or even the viola da gamba, the nasal, vibrato-less tone the lyra viol may prick the ears with a bit of asperity on first hearing. However, one soon becomes accustomed to the striking purity of the sound, which grows ever more attractive.

Absent in these solo works is the charming harmonic eccentricity and intricate counterpoint of the consort music. However, the melodies and dotted rhythm dance feeling is pleasantly folksy. Moments of minor key somberness gesture towards tragic utterance but never really get beyond a lovelorn sigh or two, perhaps owing to their brevity.

It is hard to imagine these pieces played any better than this. Richard Boothby, the founder of the renowned Purcell Quartet and Fretwork ensembles, has done much to resurrect the viol consort repertory. It is a real privilege to take in this hour of music, historically evocative of the greatest artistic refinement while simultaneously breathing an air of popular music-making that transcends time. Those interested in acquainting themselves with William Lawes at his finest should seek out the Harp Consorts, but these are excellent performances of a neglected but most interesting repertory.

—Fritz Balwit

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