Wigmore Mondays – Phantasm and Elizabeth Kenny play dance music of the 17th century

Phantasm (above), Elizabeth Kenny (theorbo)

Lawes Royal Consort No.10 (c mid-1630s)

Locke Consort of 4 Parts No 5 (c mid-1650s)

Lawes Royall Consort No 5 (c mid-1630s)

Locke The Flatt Consort ‘for my cousin Kemble’ (c mid-1650s)

Lawes Royall Consort No 6 (c mid-1630s)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 22 May, 2017

Listen to the BBC broadcast here

Written by Ben Hogwood

Want to know what dance music sounded like 400 years ago?

Well the answer to that question – in England at least – lay at the heart of this fascinating lunchtime in the company of Phantasm. The group are a viol consort, a kind of early form of string quartet, playing authentic viols – two trebles, a tenor, and a bass. The trebles are violin equivalents but are played like very small cellos, the instrument held in the lap. The tenor is an elegant looking instrument, around two-thirds the size of a cello and played in the same way, while the bass is essentially an ancestor of the modern cello, without the spike to keep it from slipping. Joining the four was Elizabeth Kenny, playing the distinctive lute relative, the theorbo.

They made a lovely sound in the music of William Lawes and Matthew Locke, two Englishmen of the early to mid-17th century. The contrasting styles were effective – we heard three Royal Consorts from Lawes, intended for the court of Charles I, and two Consorts from Locke. The pieces were built around dance forms, but as the entertaining note from leader Laurence Dreyfus pointed out, this is not music that would have been easy to dance to. Most dance music – in the West at least – is written in units of four, so that us luddites know when to change steps, but Lawes would write in blocks of seven, nine or eleven. The music is attractive and sunny, reflecting the daylight that streamed in through the Wigmore Hall roof.

We began with the Royal Consort no.10 of Lawes (from 4:32 on the broadcast link), an elegant collection of six short dance movements headed by a brightly voiced Pavan, then two each of Allemandes (8:02 and 11:09) and Courantes (9:40 and 12:51) before finishing with an unusually chirpy Saraband (13:57). The Allemande is a dance of German origin, the Courante and Saraband from France.

Then we moved on to Locke’s much more worrisome Consort of 4 Parts no.5 in G minor, abruptly changing mood from unexpectedly bleak to fiery exchanges in the Fantasy movement (16:23), then enjoying a stately Courante (20:22), a thoughtful Air (21:35) and brighter Saraband (23:12), which had a strange, abrupt finish. These were brilliantly characterised by the five players.

Returning to Lawes, we heard the Royal Consort no.5, beginning with pair of Airs at once serene (26:21) and lively (29:30). Then there was a short Allemande (31:06) and a pair of Courantes (32:16 and 33:53) before the highlight, a wonderful echo effect during the rustic Morriss (35:07) and an almost otherworldly Saraband (35:47). All were played with poise and flair, prompted by Elizabeth Kenny’s subtle theorbo playing.

Once more we took a darker turn for Locke’s The Flatt Consort ‘for my cousin Kemble’, so-called because of its minor key. The music, beginning at 38:55, was once again very changeable, moving between slow and fast, quiet and loud. The three contrasting sections with which it ended wore a gruff face (45:21), or a poised, elegant one (45:56), and finally resorted to a driving, brusque tempo from 47:24.

Finally we returned to Lawes for another cheery Royal Consort – no.6 – comprised of an Air (50:22), Allemande (51:55), Courante (53:44) and a brisk, energetic Morriss from 55:40 to finish, Kenny’s theorbo using a distinctive twang.

As an encore the group offered two numbers from the Royall Consort no.4 (58:01 and 59:28), again bright and breezy.

This was a superb concert, given with great enthusiasm, drive and poise, featuring five performers at the top of their game but playing very much as a group, and mastering the quirky tuning of their instruments to make a wonderful sound. I will definitely be catching it again on the iPlayer!

Further listening

You can hear the Lawes suites on the Spotify link below…from where you can access more from the composer.

Locke is more difficult to pin down…but the link below will take you to his dramatic incidental music for The Tempest: