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William Byrd (1543 - 1623): "Consort Songs"

Robin Blaze, alto Concordia

rec: April 30 - May 2, 2003, London, All Saint's Church, East Finchley
Hyperion - CDA67397 (67'21")

Ah silly Soul; All as a sea; An aged dame; Come to me, grief, for ever; Constant Penelope; How vain the toils; Lullaby: My sweet little baby; O dear life, when may it be; O God that guides the cheerful sun; O that most rare breast; Rejoice into the Lord; Who likes to love; Ye sacred Muses

Mark Levy, Emilia Benjamin, Reiko Ichise, Alison McGillivray, Joanna Levine, viola da gamba; Elizabeth Kenny, lute

A quality which I normally highly appreciate is a little out of place here. Robin Blaze is expressing the words very well, and articulation is very clear as well. That is highly appropriate in baroque music, in particular by Italian and German composers, but far less in English renaissance music.
In their liner notes Elizabeth Kenny and Mark Levy state: "Byrd's emphasis on sheer beautiful sound is one of the reasons these songs feel and sound so different from the lute Ayres of Dowland, Campion and others. Instead of localized word-painting and vocal effects to highlight particular moments in the text, where the voice becomes a medium for the rhetorical flourishes of persuasion, here Byrd frames his music 'to the life of the words' by using the expressive power of the voice itself."
To some extent this is an exaggeration. Take the third item on this disc, for instance. More than once the words are very strongly reflected by the music: a line like "she tumbled on the ground" is very vividly illustrated by the music.And this disc not only contains consort songs, as the title suggests, but also three lute songs, where there is a closer connection between text and music than in most of the consort songs, and here a more declamatory interpretation of the text is needed. And it is here where Robin Blaze is at his most convincing.

It is true, though, that in many consort songs Byrd doesn't concentrate on a close connection between words and music as, for instance, the Italian madrigal composers of his time did. In fact, the voice is part of the ensemble, an additional instrument. In Byrd's time collections with songs were published with the reference "apt for voices and viols". And even though Byrd wanted the upper line to be sung and the other parts to be played on viols, he had to take the interest of the market into account. Therefore the publication of his consort songs included a text underlay of all parts so that they could be performed by voices alone.
The close connection between the voice and the viols implies that they should perfectly blend. And that is what is not quite the case here. The voice of Robin Blaze is just a little too light-coloured to blend ideally with the dark sound of the viols, in particular in the more sombre pieces.
In addition to that the emotional bandwidth of Robin Blaze is rather limited. The more light-hearted pieces come out best, but the gloomier songs are lacking real depth, like the song on the death of Sir Philip Sidney - Come to me, grief, for ever - or the famous lament on the death of Thomas Tallis, Ye sacred muses. In this respect James Bowman is the absolute master. The way he colours his voice and plays with dynamics in this song is just magnificent, and makes it sound heartbreaking.
The playing of Concordia is alright, especially in another lament on the death of Sir Philip Sidney, O that most rare breast. But otherwise I found the playing a little too superficial sometimes.

Two other remarks: Robin Blaze's singing is marred by his habit to use a slight vibrato on almost every longer note, which becomes a little tiresome. And I also think that he is too sparing in his ornamentation, in particular in the lute songs.

Johan van Veen ( 2004)

Relevant links:
William Byrd
Robin Blaze
Concordia


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