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Welcome to Hyperion Records, an independent British classical label devoted to presenting high-quality recordings of music of all styles and from all periods from the twelfth century to the twenty-first.
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All fantasies in the consort tradition begin with a ‘point’ of imitation, themes repeated throughout all the parts, which sets the tone of a movement. It may, for example, be vocal in character, evoke a sacred work, or a dance type of various kinds. What it mustn’t be is bizarre and outlandish. But that’s exactly how Lawes opens his collection: an awkward enunciation of a rising fourth which puts the accent on the wrong syllable followed by an even uglier wide leap upwards like a distorted mirror image – a very unpromising start, guaranteed to deny pleasure and to evoke bemusement. Lawes loves to indulge awkwardly in ambiguities of mode, suggesting both the major and minor (as in 1:17–1:22). Overall, the fantasy presents an unrelentingly dark vision without a single cadence in the major, a stark opening to an unusual collection.
Though he pretends to have based a piece on a Gregorian chant, Lawes has made up the ‘playnsong’! The technique in similar In Nomines binds the composer’s counterpoint to a strict cantus firmus, but the genre becomes a sham if the pre-existing tune in long notes can be altered at will. Outrageous, sacrilegious even, and yet one of the most haunting pieces in the repertoire. The ‘English cadence’ with its piquant false relations was a staple of polyphony since the 16th century, but never has a closing passage with its mixture of sharps and flats – there were no natural signs in the 17th century – sounded more eerie than at 0:38–0:46. Lawes composes musical cascades as spiteful outbursts (beginning at 2:04), since he combines the notes of two triads which don’t go together – D minor and F major – like wheat and chaff tossed together with disdain. The incongruous, if welcome, move to the warmer major mode (2:40–2:50) invites a sunny respite after the unrelieved gloom, so that the reversion to melancholy (2:53) is all the more painful and touching. The otherworldliness of this odd piece can also be heard in the ghostly organ shadow which appears unbidden at rare moments (such as at 2:56–3:19).
Lawes dabbles in harmonic ugliness even near the beginning of a tuneful Aire (0:06–0:07), evoking something modern and stilted at the same time: a newly deformed version of an old English cross-relation. A cheeky theme made of repeated pairs of quavers (0:44–0:54) has the treble viols imitate uncouth violins. Why this display of brash country manners is so satisfying remains a mystery.