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

James Bowman, alto Ricercar Consort

rec: Sept 1998, Bolland, Eglise St Apollinaire
Ricercar - RIC 206442 (61'05")

anon: Born is the babe; Come tread the paths; Complain with tears; Fantasia a 5; Fie, fie, my fate; In paradise; My little sweet darling; O death rock me asleep; Byrd: Fair Britain Isle; Fantasia (II) a 6; In Nomine a 4; Lullaby, my sweet little baby; Quis me statim; Rejoice in the Lord; Triumph with pleasant melody; Wretched Albinus; Ye sacred muses

Philippe Pierlot, Sophie Watillon, Kaori Uemura, David Sinclair, Liam Fennelly, Rainer Zipperling, viola da gamba

The title puzzles me: why is the CD called "William Byrd: Consort songs", when 8 of the 17 pieces are anonymous? Then, the presentation by Ricercar is messy as usual. There is always something wrong: either parts of the lyrics are omitted (in this case lyrics are printed which are not performed), translations are unidiomatic, lots of typos etc.
Furthermore: the songs are categorized, like 'for the theatre' or 'for the court'. There are some lullaby's, which are categorized as 'for the church', although the booklet rightly says that these songs were not intended for liturgical use, but to be song at home. Yes, that's Ricercar alright ...
And I just don't understand why the second stanza of the first song, the very beautiful O death, rock me asleep, has been omitted, although its text has been printed in the booklet. It is a strange habit anyway to omit stanzas from songs and madrigals etc. If you take the music seriously, you should perform it in full.

In the booklet Jerome Lejeune refers to Orlando Gibbons' collection of Madrigals and Motets of 1612, which says: "apt for viols and voices". Obviously voices and viols are equally important, and that gives many options for a performance. Here one singer takes one part, the others are played by a consort of viols, a typically English kind of ensemble. It is also obvious that the voice doesn't play the role of 'soloist': he is in fact one of the instruments. In this respect James Bowman has the ideal voice: the blending with the viols is excellent - as one register in an organ. The disadvantage is that the lyrics are sometimes difficult to understand - but a very clear pronunciation of the text has never been Bowman's strength. His voice is rather 'instrumental' in character - his expression comes from colouring and dynamics. In this recording he shows exactly why he is still the best singer for this kind of repertoire: every differentiation in the text is reflected in his singing. I always find his voice a little melancholic, and in that sort of songs (and about half of the songs on this CD are rather sombre and gloomy) he is at his very best. He is often on the borderline of whimpering, without ever crossing it.

There is nothing to complain about the Ricercar Consort; it is far more expressive than some English viol-consorts. Generally speaking this is an impressive achievement by James Bowman - and how foolish that he is written off by some people. I know some younger singers, who may have a better technique, but could learn a whole lot from the master.

Johan van Veen ( 1999)

Relevant links:
James Bowman
Ricercar Consort


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