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William Byrd and his time: Music for voices and consort

[I] William BYRD (1543-1623): "The Honour of William Byrd"
Helen Charlston, mezzo-soprano
Chelys Consort of Viols
rec: Nov 7 - 9, 2022, East Woodhay (Hampshire), St Martin's Church
BIS - 2663 (© 2023) (74'51")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - no translations
Cover, track-list & booklet

Ah silly soul; All as a sea, the world no other is; Blessed is he that fears the Lord; Come to me, grief, for ever; Fantasia à 4 No. 1; Fantasia à 5: Browning (The leaves be greene); Fantasia à 5: Two parts in one in the fourth above; Fantasia à 6 No. 1a; Fantasia à 6 No. 2a; In nomine à 4 No. 1; O Lord, make thy servant, Elizabeth; Rejoice unto the Lord; Sellenger's Round; This sweet and merry month of May; Thou poet's friend; Why do I use my paper, ink and pen; With lilies white; Wretched Albinus; Ye sacred muses

Ibrahim Aziz, Alison Kinder, Kate Conway, Sam Stadlen, Jennifer Bullock, viola da gamba; with Harry Buckoke, viola da gambaa

[II] "On Byrd's Wings - William Byrd and his Circle"
Dorothee Mields, Magdalene Harer, soprano
Boreas Quartett Bremen; Hathor Consort; Ryosuke Sakamoto, lute
rec: Dec 5 - 9, 2022, Lunsen, St. Cosmae und Damiani-Kirche
Audite - 97.818 (© 2023) (65'25")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translations: D
Cover, track-list & booklet

William BYRD (c1543-1623): Christe qui lux es (II, à 4); Christe qui lux es (III, à 4); Fantasia à 6; From virgin's womb; Have mercy upon me, O God; In Nomine à 5; O Lord, how vain; Sermone blando à 4; Triumph with pleasant melody; Who made thee, Hob, forsake the plough?; Thomas CAMPION (1567-1620): The Fairie Queene Proserpina; Orlando GIBBONS (1583-1625): See, see, the word is incarnate; Robert JOHNSON (c1485-1560): Satyr's Dance; Henry LAWES (1595-1662): A Dialogue on a Kisse; Thomas SIMPSON (1582-1628): Paduan - Courante - Aria - Volta; Thomas TOMKINS (1572-1656): Pavan & Galliard à 5

[BQ] Jin-Ju Baek, Elisabeth Champollion, Julia Fritz, Luise Manske, recorder
[HC] Romina Lischka, LIam Fennelly, Irene Klein, Liam Byrne, viola da gamba

William Byrd died in 1623, which means that this year (2023) is Byrd year. Some composers take advantage from the commemoration of their birth or death, but Byrd hardly needs such an event. However, the author of the liner-notes to the second disc reviewed here thinks differently. "There is a persistent belief in music history that England produced only two truly significant composers: Henry Purcell and Benjamin Britten. But can this be true? What about the Golden Age of British art and culture under the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I? Was it not a golden age of poetry, music and theatre, led by the singular œuvre of Shakespeare? Did English composers not develop a particular musical language before a host of Italian and German musicians made their fortune in London? Has it not been precisely this island existence that has made development of music in England unique, whilst also preventing far-reaching reception on the continent?" This is hard to understand, as Byrd's sacred music is part of the standard repertoire of choirs and vocal ensembles, not only in the United Kingdom, and his keyboard works and consort music are also often performed and well represented on disc. The genre of the consort song, which is the core of the two recordings which are the subject of this review, maybe a little underexposed. It is telling that neither of the three main sources of such songs, which were published in 1588, 1589 and 1611 respectively, were available complete on disc until Weser-Renaissance Bremen recently.

Never mind, a disc with music by Byrd is always welcome. It was for a reason that the poet Henry Peacham called him "our Phoenix Master", as quoted in the Audite-booklet. The two discs approach Byrd from different angles. Helen Charlston and the Chelys Consort of Viols offer a kind of musical portrait of the composer, which tries to reveal the man behind the music. "This disc explores the proud Englishman, devoted friend, loyal subject and faithful servant who was William Byrd", Alison Kinder states in the booklet. The Boreas Quartet, the Hathor Consort and the sopranos Dorothee Mields and Magdalene Harer put Byrd and his music into their historical context. His music is the core of the programme, but we also hear pieces by English contemporaries and composers of the next generation, some of whom may have been his pupils.

Consort music was not an exclusive English genre, but probably more popular in England than elsewhere, and also still fashionable when it had become obsolete on the mainland. It could be played by different combinations of instruments. One of them was a group of instruments of the same family, such as viols or recorders. Instruments of different kinds could also be mixed; such a formation was known as 'broken consort'. The two discs include specimens of both kinds of consort.

The first disc is devoted to music for or with a consort of viols. The programme includes one keyboard work, Sellenger's Round, but that is performed here in an arrangement for consort. The fantasias are different in character. Some are lively, such as the Fantasia à 5: Browning (The Leaves be Greene), others are more solemn. A specimen of the latter is the In Nomine à 4. It represents a genre that was much revered, based upon the Sarum antiphon Gloria tibi Trinitas as it was used by John Taverner as cantus firmus in his mass of the same name. The Fantasia à 6 No. 1 is the instrumental version of the motet Laudate pueri Dominum, which is included in the Cantiones Sacrae, that Byrd published, together with Thomas Tallis, in 1575.

The main part is given to songs for voice and an instrumental consort. There is much variation here as well. This sweet and merry month of May is one of many pieces English renaissance composers devoted to this month or, more generally, Spring. Although this is a madrigal, it can be performed like a consort song, as is the case here. Very different are the pieces written at the occasion of the death of some personalities from Byrd's time. Wretched Albinus is about the death of the Earl of Essex, who was beheaded for treason in 1601. Byrd composed several songs at the occasion of the death of Sir Philip Sidney, who succumbed to the injuries sustained during the battle of Zutphen in 1585; one of them is Come to me, grief, for ever. Another song of mourning is Why do I use my paper, ink and pen, devoted to the death of the Jesuit father Edmund Campion, who was executed for his faith in 1581. The most moving lament closes the programme: Ye sacred Muses, which end with the phrase: "Tallis is dead, and Music dies".

Consort songs could be secular or sacred; sometimes there is little difference between them. At the time there was no watershed between the two categories. O Lord, make thy servant Elizabeth may surprise to come from the pen of the staunchly Catholic Byrd, living under the reign of the staunchly Protestant Elizabeth I. However, the Queen very much liked Byrd's music, and he owed her the privilege to print music. Blessed is he that fears the Lord is a setting of an anonymous versification of Psalm 112. It is scored for five voices, and Byrd leaves the line-up to the performers. Rejoice unto the Lord, on the other hand, is specifically scored for a solo voice and a consort of instruments.

The Chelys Consort of Viols is a fine ensemble, that may be less well-known than Phantasm and Fretwork, but can easily compete with them, as this disc shows. They are responsible for the postive features of this recording. I am far less happy with the singing of Helen Charlston. There are two reasons. The first is her incessant vibrato, which is generally not required other than as a form of ornamentation, but it is especially out of place here, as the voice has to blend perfectly with the viols. In this case it does not. The second issue is that in some pieces she sings in an almost baroque way, quite declamatory and emphasizing some words. A striking example is Why do I use my paper, ink and pen. This seems to me a mistake. In David Skinner's recording Nicholas Todd is much more convincing here. This is renaissance music, and the singing should be more legato.

Overall, this recording is rather disappointing.

On the Audite disc most pieces are played by the Boreas Quartett Bremen, a group of four recorder players. A few items are performed by the Hathor Consort, here consisting of four players of viols, from treble to bass. As the track-list shows, some pieces are in more than four parts, which means that there the two ensembles are mixed in different combinations of viols and recorders. One such piece is Byrd's Fantasia à 6. Fantasias were very popular in England, often called fancies. They were so typical of the traditional English music that after the Restoration Charles II, having come from exile in France where he had heard the latest music, expressed "an utter detestation of Fancys", as the author Roger North stated. An In nomine could not be omitted from the programme. Lastly, a substantial part of the consort repertoire consists of dances; the combination of pavan and galliard was the most common. Here we get such a pair from the pen of Thomas Tomkins. In the track-list in the booklet the galliard is omitted.

In the late 16th and early 17th centuries numerous songs were written and published in England. The best-known today are those by John Dowland, but many of his colleagues also contributed to the genre. One of them was Thomas Campion, who is represented here with The Fairie Queene Proserpina. Here the voice is accompanied by a lute. It was also a possibility to add a viola da gamba. That is the case in Henry Lawes's A Dialogue on a Kisse. Like the previous disc, this one includes a number of consort songs, but then with a consort of recorders rather than viols. The voices of Dorothee Mields and Magdalene Harer are such that they blend perfectly with the recorders. There is one piece where the performers have taken some freedom which does not really convince. Byrd's O Lord, how vain comprises three stanzas which end with a chorus, which is performed here by the two sopranos and recorders, which is a rather unlucky decision on the part of the performers. The disc ends with See, see, the Word is incarnate, an anthem by Orlando Gibbons, which is scored for five to six voices with consort; here only the two upper voices are sung, the others are performed instrumentally.

One may wonder why a piece from a collection with the German title Taffel-Consort is included here. The composer was English; little is known about the formative years of Thomas Simpson; the first documented evidence of his existence is a list of musicians at the court of the Elector Palatine in Heidelberg in 1608. He worked for most of his life in Germany and spent his last years in Copenhagen. All his extant music was published in Germany, and the Taffel-Consort was the last collection of his pen, printed in 1621, comprising fifty consort pieces. They include a basso continuo part which has been omitted here. From Peter Holman's article on Simpson in New Grove I conclude that these pieces seem to be intended for strings, including violins. Here they are played on recorders, and these suit the four selected dances pretty well.

The Boreas Quartett Bremen is a fine ensemble; I first heard it on a disc with consort music by Christopher Tye and more recently in a programme with music at the Court of Margaret of Austria. I enjoyed both very much, and that is the case here again. Their technically impeccable and lively playing is nice to listen to. In the latter programme they collaborated with Dorothee Mields, and that is a winning combination. I have to say, though, that I regret the slight vibrato in her voice. Her colleage Magdalene Harer is nearly free from that. Their voices blend well in the pieces for two voices. For those who don't know them: in such items Mields is on the left side of the sound spectrum, Harer on the right. As I already mentioned, the balance between the voices and the instruments is just right. The collaboration with the Hathor Consort is a nice addition: some pieces are played by viols alone, but in most cases members of the two ensembles join in a 'broken consort', and that works very well.

This disc is an interesting and musically captivating contribution to the Byrd commemoration.

Johan van Veen (© 2023)

Relevant links:

Helen Charlston
Magdalene Harer
Boreas Quartett Bremen
Chelys Consort of Viols
Hathor Consort

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