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09 Jun 2008
Songs by Henry & William Lawes
With this recording of songs by Henry & William Lawes, musical brothers who flourished in Caroline England, countertenor Robin Blaze with lutenist Elizabeth Kenny continue their exploration of early English song for Hyperion, and the results are stunning.
Blaze sings with consummate control, impressive technical agility, a broad dynamic range and expressive flair; Kenny is his perfect accompanimental match, playing with flexibility, engaging adornment, dynamism, and unusual clarity of tone.
Many of the pieces here show the English response to continental progress, advances that travel, international marriages, publication, and the presence of foreign musicians at court would have made familiar. Italy’s new text-centered baroque aesthetic, defined in works like Caccini’s Le nuove musiche, found an English echo in expressive, songs with declamatory elements and Italianate ornamental idioms. Henry Lawes’ “A Tale Out of Anacreon” and “Amarillis by a Spring” or William Lawes’ “O Let Me Still and Silent Lie,” are fine examples of this Anglo-Italianism; the “aye me” of “O Let Me Still and Silent Lie” is as doleful as any madrigalistic ohime. Compositional tongue in cheek, in the song “In quell gelato core,” Henry Lawes went so far as to set the table of contents of an Italian song anthology, a convincing aria di piu parte with all Italian idioms and ornamentations “thereunto appertaining.”
The serious, impassioned Italianate songs are placed in counterpoint here with instrumental pieces—the broody and moody lute fantasia by Cuthbert Hely is especially notable—and strophic songs with triple meter dance elements like “O My Clarissa” or “Amidst the Myrtles as I Walk.” The performances of these songs are unflaggingly captivating, not least for the animating and beguiling use of the plucked strings. With harp, guitar, and theorbo all engaged, who can resist? Although historically it is the declamatory songs that have seemed most significant, in this anthology, I suspect it is these pieces that will most readily gratify, a pleasant reminder of the congeniality of the English ayre and the persistence of its tradition.
The saga of the Lawes brothers is one marked by sad poignance, for William lost his life in 1645, fighting for the royalist cause at the Battle of Chester. The concluding work on the recording is Henry’s “Pastoral Elegie to the memory of my deare Brother.” The text speaks of William’s ability to “allay the murmurs of the wind,” to “appease the sullen seas,” to “calme the fury of the mind.” The imagery here reminds of the Orpheus archetype certainly, but in more concrete terms, it underscores the dynamic power of musical expression. In the “Songs by Henry & William Lawes,” this is amply and wonderfully on display.