Byrd: Consort Music and Songs

bFIVE Recorder Consort, Sunhae Im soprano
Coviello Classics COV91725

[dropcap]B[/dropcap]yrd’s 533 surviving works divide into five broad categories: Latin church music, English church music, keyboard music, consort music, and songs. There have been complete recordings of three of these repertories. Missing so far are the complete English church music and of the songs. Easy though it would be to round up all of Byrd’s Anglican repertory onto a couple of discs, the greater need is for a comprehensive recording of his large and disparate number of songs. Many are in published collections, but a good number survive only in manuscript. Those that were published in his lifetime tend to be partsongs of various types; those unpublished tend to be consort songs. There is some overlap between these two categories, as alternative versions survive for many songs. It is a repertory replete with outstanding pieces, and recordings have been made of similar repertories by other composers, but currently Byrd’s song oeuvre is spread across any number of commercial recordings. Some are on single discs devoted to his music alone like the one under review. Other songs make single or isolated appearances for Byrd on anthologies or themed discs which include works by several composers. It’s a mess. Meanwhile, we have to be grateful for recordings such as this one, albeit they include some songs which have been recorded several times already, but which also include at least one premiere recording. Usually, the accompanying consort is of viols, but occasionally it is of recorders, as is the case here. (Keyboards, cornetts, sackbuts and even saxophones – surprisingly successful – are not unknown.) It also happens routinely that such discs consist mainly of songs, but also include a selection of Byrd’s instrumental consort music. Contrariwise here, of the 21 numbered tracks, the majority – eleven – are the consort music of the title, and only ten are songs.

The recorders begin the disc with the third Fantasia a6, which Byrd published in his Psalmes, songs, and sonnets  of 1611. All three of Byrd’s six-part fantasias are represented, including the early example which is thought by most critics to be the original form of his motet Laudate pueri  from the Cantiones sacrae  published jointly with Tallis in 1575; though some dissenting voices assert that the motet came first. In any event, B-Five perform it as it survives instrumentally, and not with the small differences found in the published vocal version. (Of the two preceding recordings, the Rose Consort play it the former way, Phantasm the latter – misguidedly, in my opinion.) The recorders also play all five of Byrd’s surviving five-part In nomines, Browning, the five-part Pavan which is the original of Byrd’s First Pavan for keyboard, and an unnecessary modern arrangement of its galliard.

The disc’s premiere recording is of When first by force. Nothing in this repertory seems to come without the need for explanations. In those sources where the work survives as a consort song with a complete text, that text is a poem beginning I that sometime. However, other such sources that are fragmentary and lack any underlay give the title as When first by force  which is the text attached to it when it appears as a partsong in Byrd’s Songs of sundrie natures  from 1589. That text is the one used here.

Of lesser known songs seldom recorded, And think ye nymphs  survives only as a partsong – in Byrd’s 1589 Songs  – but is presented here in a frenetic version arranged for solo voice and recorders. An aged dame is a bona fide consort song with a text which teeters between the ghoulish and the surrealistic. Meanwhile How vain the toils  finds Byrd near the end of his career in his Psalmes, songs, and sonnets  of 1611 with a consort song in what is mainly a collection of partsongs, right at the top of his game with a work that manages to be both magisterial yet subtle.

Inevitably some more familiar items have been included. Though Amaryllis dance in green  is taken at one heck of a lick; sometimes one wonders whether such an interpretation is recorded more to showcase the performers than the music, for which it does little. Nearly as familiar is My mistress had a little dog  but here full credit goes to the musicians for playing up to Byrd’s obviously intended histrionics. Notable and creditable is the singer’s clearly audible and expressive drop of a fifth in the first line on the word “Royal”, a crucial rhetorical gesture by Byrd often glossed over by singers who lack the range for convincing lower notes.

The combination of soprano and recorders is not to everyone’s taste, and occasionally Sunhae Im’s slight vibrato grates against the smoother timbre of the higher recorders. That said, her experience as a Baroque opera specialist gives many of her interpretations considerable profundity. The sordid narrative of Susanna fair  which has so many contemporary resonances, unfolds quite rivetingly, and Ye sacred Muses  is an outstanding version of a song that seems always to draw the best out of whoever records it.

The many felicities, and the neglected gems brought to sparkle in the light, make this an album that is easy to recommend. The overall presentation is enhanced by notes provided in the form of an interview with Kerry McCarthy, a guarantee of omniscience and elegance. All the musicians show an aptitude for this repertory, so much so that one would hope for more discs from them of Byrd’s songs and consort music. A few of the former remain unrecorded, and although there have been two complete recordings of Byrd’s complete (sic) consort music, there are some fine incomplete settings in four parts of plainsong hymns that have had their missing treble part reconstructed and which deserve a commercial hearing.

Richard Turbet

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