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CD reviews

William BYRD (1543 - 1623): Psalms, Songs & Sonets

[I] "Byrd 1588 - Psalmes, Sonets & songs of sadnes and pietie"
Grace Davidson, soprano; Martha McLorinan, mezzo-soprano
Alamire; Fretwork
Dir: David Skinner
rec: August 27 - 29 & Sept 21 - 24, 2020, Holdenby (Northamptonshire), All Saints Church
Inventa - INV1006 (© 2021) (2.36'53")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - no translations
Cover, track-list & booklet

[Funeral Songs of Sir Philip Sidney] Come to me grief forever; O that most rare breast
[Psalms] Blessed is he that fears the Lord; Even from the depth; Help Lord for wasted are those men; How shall a young man prone to ill; Lord in thy wrath reprove me not; Mine eyes with fervency of sprite; O God, give ear; My soul oppressed with care and grief; O Lord how long wilt thou forget; O Lord who in thy sacred tent
[Sonets and pastorals] Although the heathen poets; Ambitious love; As I beheld I saw a herdman wild; Constant Penelope; If women could be fair; Farewell false love; I joy not in no earthly bliss; In fields abroad; La Verginella; My mind to me a kingdom is; O you that hear this voice; The match that's made; Though Amaryllis dance in green; What pleasure have great princes; Where fancy fond; Who likes to love
[Songs of sadness and pietie] All as a sea; Care for thy soul; If that a sinner's sighs; Lullaby, my sweet little baby; Prostrate, O Lord, I lie; Susanna fair; Why do I use my paper, ink and pen?

[Alamire] Emma Walshe, soprano; Helen Charlston, mezzo-soprano; Steven Harrold, Nicholas Todd*, tenor; Timothy Scott Whiteley, baritone; Robert Macdonald, bass (* solo)

[II] "Byrd 1589 - Songs of sundrie natures"
Alamire; Fretwork; Jacob Heringman, Lynda Sayce, lute
Dir: David Skinner
rec: March 29 - April 1, 2022, Arundel (West Sussex), Arundel Castle (Fitzalan Chapel)
Inventa - INV1011 (© 2023) (2.02'34")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - no translations
Cover & track-list

[Songs in three parts] Attend my humble prayer Lord; From the depth of sin; Lord hear my prayer instantly; Lord in thy rage rebuke me not; Lord in thy wrath correct me not; O God which art most merciful; Right blessed are they; Susanna fair; The greedy hawk; The Nightingale; Upon a summer's day; When younglings first
[Songs in four parts] Fom Citheron the warlike boy is fled; Is love a boy?; O Lord my God; While that the sun; Wounded I am
[Songs in five parts] Compel the hawk; From Virgin's womb; I thought love had been a boy; O dear life; Of gold all burnished; Penelope that longed for the sight; See those sweet eyes; Weeping full sore; When first by force; When I was otherwise
[Songs in six parts] An earthly tree a heavenly fruit; And think ye nymphs; Behold how good; Christ rising again; If in thine heart; Unto the hills mine eyes I lift; Who made thee Hob

[Alamire] Rachel Haworth, Daisy Walford, soprano; Martha McLorinan, Clare Wilkinson, mezzo-soprano; Nicholas Todd, Simon Wall, tenor; Timothy Scott Whiteley, baritone; Robert Macdonald, bass
[Fretwork] Emilia Benjamin, Richard Boothby, Reiko Ichise, Jo Levine, Sarah Small, Sam Stadlen, viola da gamba

[III] "Psalmes, Songs and Sonnets 1611"
The Sixteen; Fretwork
Dir: Harry Christophers
rec: June 14 - 17, 2021, London, Church of St Augustine, Kilburn
Coro - COR16193 (© 2022) (1.29'52")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - no translations
Cover, track-list & booklet

A feigned friend; Ah silly soul; Arise Lord into thy rest; Awake mine eyes; Blow up the trumpet; Come jolly swains; Come let us rejoice unto our Lord; Come woeful Orpheus; Crowned with flowers; Fantasia a 4; Fantasia a 6; Have mercy upon me O God; How vain the toils; I have been young, but now am old; In crystal towers; In winter cold; Let not the sluggish sleep; Make we joy our God; O God that guides the cheerful sun; Of flattering speech; Praise our Lord all ye Gentiles; Retire my soul, consider thine estate; Sing we merrily unto God; Sing ye to our Lord a new song; The eagle's force; This day Christ was born; This sweet and merry month of May; Turn our captivity O Lord; Wedded to will is witless; What is life, or worldly pleasure?; Whereat an ant; Who looks may leap

[The Sixteen] Julie Cooper, Katy Hill, Alexandra Kidgell, Charlotte Mobbs, Emilia Morton, Ruth Provost, soprano; Elisabeth Paul, Kim Porter, contralto; Daniel Collins, Edward McMullan, alto; Jeremy Budd, Mark Dobell, Oscar Golden-Lee, George Pooley, tenor; Ben Davies, Eamonn Dougan, Tim Jones, Rob Macdonald, bass
[Fretwork] Emily Ashton, Richard Boothby, Jacob Garside, Reiko Ichise, Joanna Levine, Asako Morikawa, viola da gamba


This year (2023) is Byrd year: William Byrd died in 1623. One could argue that a composer of his stature does not need a commemoration year. Such an event is reason for the release of discs and public performances of his oeuvre, and those are always welcome. However, there is not exactly a lack of recordings, and his name often appears on the programmes of vocal and instrumental ensembles anyway. That said, his extant oeuvre is large, and therefore it hardly surprises that some pieces or even parts of his output are not that well-known. This review focuses on three large collections of vocal music that have not been often recorded, if at all. I am not aware of any complete recording of one of these three collections. Hyperion released a Byrd Edition, but that confined itself to the sacred works, such as masses, motets and services. The three collections that are the subject of this review cannot be counted among the genre of sacred music, as they comprise a mixture of sacred and secular works for domestic use. The sacred works have nothing in common with the motets and are certainly not intended for liturgical use, even though they are often settings of Psalms.

In the preface of the collection of 1588 Byrd states: "Benigne Reader, heere is offered vnto thy courteous acceptation, Musicke of sundrie sorts, and to content diuers humors. If thou bee disposed to pray, heere are Psalmes. If to bee merrie, heere are Sonets. If to lament for thy sins, heere are songs of sadnesse and Pietie..." The use of the word 'humors' is typical of the time: 'humor' refers to the state of mind of human beings, which exerted a strong fascination on people of that time, and especially in England. Among those 'humors' is melancholy, which is so brilliantly portrayed in John Dowland's Lachrymae Pavans.

As the reader may know, Byrd was born and died a Catholic, and had to deal with the dominance of Protestantism under the reign of Elizabeth I. Public wordship of Catholics was forbidden, and some Catholic composers left the country. Byrd did not: he enjoyed a privileged position, because the Queen was very fond of his music. Together with his colleague Thomas Tallis he was given the privilege of printing music; the first fruit of this was the collection of Cantiones Sacrae, which appeared in 1575 and included pieces by both masters. The Psalmes, Sonets & Songs of Sadnes and Pietie was the second publication of music by Byrd. It was dedicated to Sir Christopher Hatton, a favourite of Elizabeth, who in 1587 had become Lord Chancellor.

The collection comprises 35 pieces: ten psalm settings, sixteen sonnets and pastorals, seven 'songs of sadness and piety' and two funeral elegies of Sir Philip Sidney. All pieces are on English texts, except La Verginella, which is in Italian; the text is taken from Ludovico Ariosti's Orlando Furioso. One text is from the pen of Sidney (O you that hear this voice), a poet, scholar and soldier, who died in 1586 during the battle of Zutphen. Farewell false love is a text by Walter Raleigh, another favourite of Elizabeth, who was knighted in 1585. The authors of most texts are not known; some are attributed to Edward de Vere, a courtier, patron of the arts and poet. The Psalms are metrical translations, the authors of which are mostly unknown.

All the pieces are suitable for various ways of performing. They are all in five parts and can be sung by a vocal ensemble, a capella or with a consort of viols, in the way of a consort song - one voice and a consort of viols - or instrumentally, without text. Pieces for "voices and viols" were very common at the time. Originally Byrd had planned them as consort songs, and the pieces bear the traces of this form in that the upper part has marked solo traits. Mostly the lower voices open the proceedings and are joined later by the upper voice. In the performance by the ensembles Alamire and Fretwork the pieces are performed in all three ways: most are allocated to a solo voice and the viol consort. Others are either sung a capella or performed instrumentally.

There are some issues which need to be mentioned. First, in some pieces a few sections have been omitted, apparently for reasons of space. That is understandable, but regrettable. Second, no attempt has been made to perform the pieces in historical pronunciation. It is a shame that this aspect of historical performance practice is still given little attention. Third, although - as I noticed above - the upper part have soloistic traces, I think that the balance between the upper voice and the rest of the ensemble is less than ideal. That is the case in the performances with vocal ensemble, but especially in the pieces performed as consort songs. The viols are too much reduced to the role of accompaniment.

Otherwise I have nothing but praise for these performances. Grace Davidson, Martha McLorinan and Nicolas Todd have very fine voices and deliver excellent performances. They also participate in the vocal ensemble, whose voices blend perfectly. Fretwork is a top-class consort of viols, and is the ideal partner of the singers.

The collection of 1688 includes some well-known pieces, especially Though Amaryllis dance in green and Lullaby, my sweet little baby. Those are just two of the many treasures in this collection, and this recording offers the perfect opportunity to get to know them.

On a technical note: in the booklet the last four stanzas of O you that hear this voice are omitted; the complete text is available here.

Apparently the collection of 1588 was quite successful, which explains why Byrd in 1589 published a second collection of a comparable character: Songs of sundrie natures. Like the previous collection, it consists of sacred and secular pieces for domestic use. However, there are two notable differences. Whereas in the collection of 1588 Byrd left the line-up to the performers, in the 1589 collection he indicates how they have to be performed. Some pieces are for voices alone, whereas others are for one or two solo voices with a consort of viols. In some cases he included a refrain to be sung by the tutti. The second difference is that the scoring varies from three to six voices, in that order. It is the number of voices rather than the content which decided in what order they are included in the printed edition.

The set opens with twelve pieces in three parts (with the numbers 1 to 14, as in pieces with two sections both have a number). The first are the seven penitential psalms. These are no complete settings, but only the first two verses (in the case of Psalm 51 the first verse) in an anonymous English versification. Next is Susanna fair, a piece about the character from the apocryphal part of the Old Testament book of Daniel, which has been the subject of so many pieces. The most famous of which was Orlandus Lassus's chanson, which was often used for diminutions by Italian composers from around 1600. The text of Lassus's chanson was from the pen of the French poet Guillaume Guéroult, and Byrd used an English translation. The Nightingale is also based on an English translation (by Nicholas Yonge) of a French chanson (the anonymous Le rossignol).

When younglings first is one of several songs about Cupid. Others are Is love a boy?, From Citheron the warlike boy is fled, and I thought love had been a boy. There are some other pieces about figures from the Antiquity, such as Dido (When first by force) and Penelope (Penelope that longed for the sight).

In addition to the penitential psalms, the collection includes several other sacred pieces. Behold how good is a setting of a versification of Psalm 133. The Virgin's womb and An earthly tree a heavenly fruit are for Christmastide; they are scored for one and two solo voices respectively with a consort of viols, and include a refrain for unaccompanied voices. The last piece of the collection is a piece for Easter which has the character of a verse anthem: Christ rising again. The text is taken from the Book of Common Prayer.

It is a bit unfortunate that the line-up of the individual pieces is not mentioned, neither in the booklet nor in the tags of the files. The solo parts are sung by the sopranos and mezzo-sopranos from Alamire, but who sings where is anybody's guess. Not that it matters as far as the quality of the performances is concerned: all three are excellent, and so is the ensemble as a whole. This is singing of the highest order, and as a result this is pretty much an ideal performance of this collection, which - as far as I know - is the very first complete recording of the Songs of sundrie natures. Again, Fretwork is the perfect partner, and we also have good contributions from the two lutenists in some of the three-part songs.

In 1611 Byrd published a third collection of pieces of "sundrie natures", whose title reminds us of that of the collection of 1588, where the same words are used in a different order. The songs are not "of sadness", as there are no laments in this edition. It is a kind of cross between the two previous collections. Like those, the 1611 edition is a mixture of sacred and secular works, intended for domestic use. Like in the 1589 edition, the pieces are ordered according to scoring, from three to six voices. Like in the edition of 1588, the way the pieces are performed is left to the interpreters.

The secular songs are about several subjects that were very common at the time, such as nature, the seasons and love. Several refer to birds, such as the very first piece, The eagle's force and Who looks may leap. Interestingly, in the former piece, Byrd "went to the trouble of capitalising the term 'Bird' in all of the vocal parts", Kerry McCarthy states in the liner-notes, concluding that "Byrd seems to have enjoyed these avian allusions". The latter piece's text is taken from A Choice of Emblems by Geffrey Whitney, a book of proverbs and moral lessons. This indicates that secular pieces are mostly more than just entertainment, and that there is no watershed between the secular and the sacred part of collections like this one. The closing, item, How vain the toils, attests to that: "How vain the toils that mortal men do 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."

The month of May was an inspiration for poets and composers alike (This sweet and merry month of May). The Antiquity is also represented, for instance in Awake mine eyes (Phoebus, Philomela) and Crowned with flowers (Amaryllis, Thyrsis). A particular case is Come woeful Orpheus, as its text includes a phrase like "strange Cromatique Notes ... sowrest Sharps and uncouth Flats". These are indeed written into the music, which makes it a particular case, although Kerry McCarthy emphasizes that here Byrd "certainly goes no further than various other English Renaissance composers had gone in their own harmonic adventures."

This book includes more Psalms than the previous two, and most of these are placed in the latter half, which means that they are for larger forces: five and six voices. All of them are on English texts, but there is a major difference between the settings in this collection and those in the two previous editions. There the texts were anonymous versifications; here they are taken from a Primer prayer book by Richard Verstegan, intended for Jacobean Catholics and printed in Antwerp.

In addition to the Psalms, this book includes several pieces for a particular part of the year. This day Christ was born is obviously intended for Christmastide ("A Carroll for Christmas day"), whereas O God that guides the cheerful sun is a "Carroll for Newyear's day". The latter has a form we already encountered in the book of 1589: the two verses are scored for a solo voice, and both are followed by a refrain for the entire ensemble. Another consort song is Have mercy upon me O God, a setting of the two first verses of Psalm 51, one of the penitential psalms. However, it could also be reckoned among the genre of the verse anthem: the solo voice's lines are repeated by the 'choir'.

In pieces for or with solo voice, the other parts are performed by a consort of viols. In this and the 1588 collection Byrd indicated that all the pieces could be performed instrumentally. What sets the book of 1611 apart from the previous two is that it includes two Fantasias for viols.

In his foreword Harry Christophers expresses his surprise that so little of this book is known and performed. That goes for all three books which are the subject of the recordings reviewed here. These three collections include many jewels, and one would wish that they are more frequently performed. It is to be hoped that these recordings, and the Byrd commemoration in general, may contribute to a more complete picture of one of England's greatest composers.

Whereas I have rated highly the performances by Alamire and Fretwork of the two first books, I have to say that I am rather disappointed by the performances of Then Sixteen. The three-part pieces are performed by three solo voices from the ensemble, which seems entirely right. The pieces for four to six parts are all performed by the full ensemble (with the exception of the consort songs, of course). I find this rather inconstent, and I don't understand the decision to do so, especially as this is music to be performed in domestic surroundings. The booklet does not indicate whether each time all the singers are involved, but as the names of the singers are only mentioned in the case of the three-part pieces, it seems reasonable to assume they are. I also would have liked some pieces to be performed by voices and viols, apart from the consort songs, for the sake of variety. The most disappointing aspect is that the voices don't blend that well, neither in the three-part pieces nor in those for four to six parts, and that is largely due to the marked vibrato in several of them. It is not required in early music anyway, except in solo pieces as a form of ornamentation, but here it is quite damaging as it disturbs the blending of the voices, the transparency of the sound and the intelligibility of the text. I hope that David Skinner is going to record the 1611 collection in the near future.

Johan van Veen (© 2023)

Relevant links:

Grace Davidson
Martha McLorinan
The Sixteen

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