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CD reviews

Consort music & consort songs from the English renaissance

[I] William BYRD (1543 - 1623): "Consort Music and Songs"
Sunhae Im, sopranoa
bFIVE Recorder Consort
rec: August 18 - 21, 2016, Basse-Bodeux (B), Eglise de Notre-Dame de l'Assomption
Coviello Classics - COV 91725 (© 2017) (64'54")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translation: D
Cover & track-list

Ah silly Soula; An aged Damea; And think ye Nymphsa; Browning a 5; Come woeful Orpheusa; Fantasia I a 6b; Fantasia II a 6b; Fantasia III a 6b; How vain the toilsa; In nomine I a 5; In nomine II a 5; In nomine III a 3; In nomine IV a 5; In nomine V a 5; My mistress had a little doga; Pavan - Galliard; Susanna faira; Though Amaryllis dance in greena; Ye sacred musesa; When first by forcea

Markus Bartholomé, Katelijne Lanneau, Thomas List, Silja-Maaria Schütt, Mina Voet, recorder, with: Susanna Borsch, recorderb

[II] "A Pleasing Melancholy"
Emma Kirkby, sopranoa
Chelys Consort of Violsb; James Akers, lutec
rec: March 2016, Cambridge, Girton College Chapel
BIS - 2283 (© 2017) (72'13")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - no translations
Cover & track-list

John DANYEL (1564-c1625): Eyes look no moreabc [4]; If I could shut the gate against my thoughtsabc [4]; John DOWLAND (1563-1626): Flow my tearsabc [1]; If floods of tearsabc [1]; Lachrimae or Seven Teares (Lachrimae Antiquae; Lachrimae Antiquae Novae; Lachrimae Gementes; Lachrimae Tristes; Lachrimae Coactae; Lachrimae Amantis; Lachrimae Verae; M. George Whitehead his Almand)bc [3]; Mourn, mourn, day is with darkness fledac [1]; John DOWLAND, arr William WIGTHORPE (c1570-c1610): Sorrow, comeab; Anthony HOLBORNE: My heavy sprite (arr Ibrahim Aziz)abc [6]; Tobias HUME (c1579-1645): What greater griefab [5]; Robert JONES (c1577-c1615): Lie down poor heartabc [2]; Thomas SIMPSON (1582-1628): Paduan [7]; Volta [7]

Sources: [1] John Dowland, The Second Booke of Songs or Ayres of 2, 4. and 5. parts, 1600 [2] Robert Jones, First Booke of Songes and Ayres, 1601; [3] John Dowland, Lachrimae or Seaven Teares, 1604; [4] John Danyel, Songs for the Lute, Viol and Voice, 1606; [5] Tobias Hume, Captaine Humes Poeticall Musicke, 1607; [6] Robert Dowland, A Musicall Banquet, 1610; [7] Thomas Simpson, Taffel-Consort, 1621

Emily Ashton, Ibrahim Aziz, Jennifer Bullock, Alison Kinder, Sam Stadlen, viola da gamba

[III] John DOWLAND (1563-1626): Lachrimae or Seven Tears
Phantasm; Elizabeth Kenny, lute
rec: July 5 - 7, 2015, Oxford, Magdalen College
Linn Records - CKD 527 (© 2016) (57'33")
Liner-notes: E (liner-notes in German)
Cover, track-list & booklet

Laurence Dreyfus, Jonathan Manson, Mikko Perkola, Emilia Benjamin, Markku Luolajan-Mikkola, viola da gamba

Scores Byrd
Scores Dowland

One of the main forms of instrumental music in renaissance England was that written for a consort of instruments. Such a consort could consist of instruments of the same family, such as viols or recorders, or of different families (known as 'broken consort'). William Byrd and his younger comtemporary John Dowland were among the most productive composers of such music.

This kind of repertoire is mostly played on viols; the catalogue includes a large number of recordings of ensembles like Phantasm and Fretwork, to name just a couple. However, it is perfectly possible to play consort music with an ensemble of recorders. Their existence in the 16th century is documented, especially at the court, starting with the reign of Henry VIII, himself a avid player of the recorder, who also owned a large collection of such instruments. Today recorder consorts often turn to English renaissance music for their recordings, especially as there is such a large repertoire to choose from. One of the threads in the programme of the German bFIVE Recorder Consort, devoted to William Byrd, is the In nomine. Numerous arrangements of this subject were written by English composers of the 16 and 17th centuries, and it is remarkable how different these are. That also goes for those from Byrd's pen. Whereas the In nomine III is rather solemn in character, in the In nomine V the cantus firmus is surrounded by lively and elaborated counterpoint.

Another genre to which Byrd contributed many compositions was that of the consort song. His songs show a wide variety in content. Some are a reverence to popular culture, such as Though Amaryllis dance in green, whereas others have tongue-in-cheek lyrics, like An aged Dame. Whereas the former is very well known, the latter is one of Byrd's lesser known songs. The same goes for the superb When first by force. It is one of various pieces whose subject matter roots in classical mythology; another specimen is Come woeful Orpheus. There are also songs with a spiritual character; one of them is How vain the toils: "How vain the toils that mortal men to take to hoard up gold that time doth turn to dross, forgetting him who only for their sake his precious blood did shed upon the Cross". Susanna fair is about the character from the apocryphal part of the book of Daniel from the Old Testament, which has been the subject of so many pieces in the course of musical history. The disc ends with Ye sacred muses, Byrd's moving epitaph for his revered teacher Thomas Tallis.

It is quite common to play consort music on recorders, but it is different in the case of consort songs. I know of only a few where a singer joins the recorders to sing such songs. The present disc probably reveals what the problem is: the blending of voice and viols. It is not that the sound of Sunhae Im's voice is a bad match for the recorders. In fact, I have the impression that she deliberately tries to adapt her sound to that of the instruments. But her efforts are nullified by her incessant vibrato. That is untenable from a stylistic point of view anyway, but here it has a pretty disastrous effect in that it makes the voice standing apart from the ensemble, whereas in fact she should be part of it, even one of the instruments, so to speak.

This is a real shame, especially as Byrd's songs are of superior quality and some of those performed here are little known. It is also regrettable because the recorder players do such a good job. The consort pieces and their performance are the attraction of this disc. Unfortunately the performances of the consort songs are utterly unconvincing. It goes almost without saying that the pronunciation of English is modern.

Many pieces of consort music can perfectly be performed on recorders. However, some are unsuited for such instruments, and that goes especially for pieces with a strongly melancholic character. One of the reasons is that renaissance recorders have a rather limited dynamic range. The viols have a much wider dynamic range, but also their sound make them uniquely suited for music of a sombre character. It is no coincidence that in 17th-century Germany viols were often used in sacred lamentos.

One of the most famous and most incisive examples of melancholic music is the cycle by John Dowland, known as Lachrimae or Seven Teares. The falling four-note motif which opens the seven pavans has become the trademark of Dowland and of melancholic music in general. Whether these pieces do tell us anything about Dowland's own state of mind is a matter of debate. According to a book of 1662, quoted in the booklet to the BIS disc, Dowland was "a cheerful person ... passing his days in lawful merriment". However, one of the pieces in the collection is called Semper Dowland semper Dolens, which suggests otherwise. There can be little doubt, that melancholy was also fashionable at the time. Melancholy should also not be equated with sadness. Robert Burton, in Anatomy of Melancholy of 1621, writes: "Many men are melancholy by hearing music, but it is a pleasing melancholy that it causeth; and therefore to such as are discontent, in woe, fear, sorrow, or dejected, it is a most present remedy: it expels cares, alters their grieved minds, and easeth in an instant." And Dowland, in the preface to his collection, states: " And though the title doth promise teares, unfit guests in these joyfull times, yet no doubt pleasant are the teares which Musicke weepes, neither are teares shed alwayes in sorrowe, but sometime in joy and gladnesse."

Does this have any effect on the way these pieces should be played? That is an interesting question if we compare the performance of the Chelys Consort of Viols with that of the ensemble Phantasm. The former has the consistently slower tempi, lending the music the full amount of melancholy and - indeed - sadness. In comparison Phantasm delivers performances which are probably more down to earth. The tempi are generally higher, and in some cases the differences are quite striking. Take Lachrimae Tristes, by general account the saddest of them all: Chelys needs 4'55", Phantasm just 3'50". I don't want to express an unequivocal preference here. I like both performances; maybe the truth is here somewhere in the middle. The sound of Phantasm is a bit more transparent; in the case of Chelys the individual voices are harder to follow.

Phantasm offers the complete collection; the second half includes pavans, galliards and almans of various character, most of which are much more cheerful and some of which find their origin in songs. The Chelys Consort of Viols largely sticks to the melancholic atmosphere as it has added some songs which express a comparable mood. The Lachrimae Pavan was first conceived as a lute piece; the consort version Lachrimae Antiquae is a later adaptation, and so is the song included in The Second Booke of Songs or Ayres of 1600, with the text Flow my tears. The titles of the other songs by Dowland and of the songs by Robert Jones, Tobias Hume and John Danyel speak for themselves. The only pieces "to vary the otherwise entirely lugubrious feel of the programme", as Ibrahim Aziz writes in his liner-notes, are M. George Whitehead his Almand - another piece from the Lachrimae collection - and two dances by Thomas Simpson's Taffel-Consort (Hamburg, 1621).

The comparison between the vocal contributions on the discs of the Chelys Consort of Viols and the bFive Recorder Consort is striking. Emma Kirkby is much better able to adapt her voice to the viols, when that is needed. No incessant vibrato, only a slight use of it as an ornament. Her diction is excellent, and she explores the content of every line to the full. In all fairness I have to add that the songs on the BIS disc and those by Byrd are not entirely comparable. In most songs Kirkby is accompanied by lute and bass viol, and in Hume's song What greater grief she is supported by two lyra viols and a great bass viol. Strictly speaking it is not a consort song, and that allows for more freedom in the interpretation of the text. Only Wigthorpe's spiritual adaptation of Dowland's song Sorrow, come and Aziz's arrangement of Holborne's My heavy sprite are real consort songs. But here one immediately notices that Kirkby fully integrates in the ensemble, both with her treatment of the text and the sound of her voice. That is in strong contrast to Sunhae Im's approach. Unfortunately Ms Kirkby also sticks to modern pronunciation.

Let's sum up. The bFIVE Recorder Consort is a fine ensemble, and its performance of Byrd's consort music is very good. Whether it is reason enough to purchase that disc, despite the disappointing performances by Sunhae Im, is for you to decide. If you would like to have a complete recording of Dowland's Lachrimae or Seven Teares, you can't go wrong with Phantasm. The Chelys Consort of Viols offers a different approach of the lachrimae pavans from that set; their performances are a strong case for a 'darker' interpretation of these pieces. In addition you get superb performances of some fine songs from Emma Kirkby.

Johan van Veen (© 2017)

Relevant links:

Emma Kirkby
James Akers
Elizabeth Kenny
Chelys Consort of Viols

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