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"Consort Songs - Music by William Byrd and His Contemporaries"

Jill Feldman, sopranoa; Concerto delle Violeb
rec: Sept 27 - 30, 2003, Badia Agnano (Arezzo), Pieve SS. Tiburtio & Susanna
Olive Music - om 004 ( 2005) (66'49")

anon: Farewell the Blissab; When Daphne from fair Phoebus did flyab; John BENNET (c1570-1615): Venus' birdsab; William BYRD (1543-1623): Christe qui Luxb; Christe Redemptorb; Fantasia a 4b; In Nomine a 4b; Miserereb; O Lord how vainab; O that we woeful wretchesab; Out of the orient crystal skiesab; Sermone Blandoab; Ye sacred muses (An elegy on the death of Thomas Tallis)ab; John DOWLAND (1563-1626), arr William WIGTHORPE (c1560-after 1610): Sorrow comeab; Alfonso FERRABOSCO II (1578-1625): Four-note pavan (Hear me, O God)ab; Orlando GIBBONS (1583-1625): In Nomine a 4b; Richard NICHOLSON (1570-1639): Joan quoth Johnab; John WARD (c1571-c1638): Fantasia a 4b

[CdV] Roberto Gini, Kees Boeke, Marco Agilella, viola da gamba; Sabina Colonna Preti, violone

The Reformation in England had far-reaching consequences in musical matters. Composers were used to write polyphonic masses and motets for the Roman-Catholic liturgy. The much more sober liturgy of the Church of England didn't need those, so there weren't many opportunities left to compose in polyphonic style. One of these opportunities was the viol consort, an ensemble of 3 to 5 viols which under Henry VIII had been imported from Italy. During the 16th century many pieces for viol consort were composed, and in these composers often used old liturgical chants as cantus firmus. It is even possible that in the performance of these pieces the cantus firmus was sung. Several examples of this kind of consort music are performed here, as the tracklist shows. From here it was a little step towards what is known as the consort song, a polyphonic piece in which mostly one voice is supported by an ensemble of viols.

One of the composers who put many efforts into this genre was William Byrd, one of the foremost composers of church music in the second half of the 16th century. He wasn't much interested in Italian-style madrigals as they were written in England in his time, nor in the lute song. Consort music, and especially the consort song, was much more appealing to this champion of elaborate music. Byrd wrote more than 40 consort songs, which were never published in their original form. In his songbook of 1588, Psalmes, Sonets, & songs of sadness and pietie, some of them were arranged as partsongs.

Many consort songs are of a religious or moralistic nature. The picture on the cover of this disc is well-chosen: it is an anonymous French painting of about 1630, entitled "Allegory of the vanity of earthly things". The songs on this disc often refer to the vanity of human life, like O that we woeful wretches ("O that we woeful wretches could behold how soon this life doth pass") or O Lord, how vain ("O Lord, how vain are all our frail delights"). Some songs are more specific religious, like Ferrabosco's hymn Hear me, O God, which is about sin and the forgiveness through Jesus's death at the cross. This song has been preserved both in an instrumental version (Four-note pavan) and a version with the text that is sung here. It shows that the voice is part of the ensemble, just one of the instruments.

This is one of the strengths of this disc: Jill Feldman's voice blends wonderfully well with the viols, even though she uses a slight vibrato. Another feature of these performances is their theatrical nature, very unlike most recordings of this kind of repertoire. A good example of this approach is the very first item on the disc, which is almost acted, with a rhythmically rather free delivery of the text. The dialogue between Joan and John in Nicholson's song Joan quoth John is very lively, in an almost baroque operatic manner. The viol consort contributes to this through sometimes strong dynamic contrasts. The songs of a religious or moral character are performed with great expression. Some of the most moving items are Byrd's O Lord, how vain and Ferrabosco's Hear me, O God.

The tempi seem sometimes a little too slow, in particular Byrd's elegy on the death of his teacher, Thomas Tallis (Ye sacred muses). The use of ornamentation is somewhat inconsistent, being absent where one would expect it. On the whole a little more of it wouldn't harm. Disappointing is the modern pronunciation of the text.

Like I said before, it is quite possible that in consort pieces which were based on plainchant the cantus firmus was originally sung. It had been nice had this practice been applied here. But they are performed with instruments only, and they are played very well. The dynamical contrasts we find in a number of pieces on this disc are rather unusual, but musically convincing.

In short, this is a fine disc, which brings an interesting and captivating programme of outstanding music, well performed and recorded.

Johan van Veen ( 2008)

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