Byrd consort HMU907383

Déjà Review: this review was first published in July 2006 and the recording is still available.

William Byrd (c. 1540–1623)
Consort Songs
Emma Kirkby (soprano)
rec. 2004, St. Bartholomew’s Church, Orford, UK
Harmonia Mundi HMU907383 [75]

Byrd’s first songbook “Psalmes, Sonets & songs of sadnes and pietie” only reached print in 1588, to be followed in 1589 by “Songs of Sundrie Natures”. His third venture into print within this genre was much later, in 1611, with Psalmes, Songs and Sonnetts. These are not light, skittish pieces. The style is far removed from the canzonets and madrigals of the Elizabethan period and it is denser than the baroque monody that was coming in towards the end of Byrd’s life.

The songs’ style is very much Byrd’s own, though in the liner notes David Pinto comments that the songs owe something to the Franco-Flemish chansons of Byrd’s youth except that Byrd has the four parts played instrumentally with the texted voice part above them.

For the texts, his earlier songs were influenced by the rather sober tastes of Edward VI’s court. Something like O Lord, bow down thine heav’nly eyes is a paraphrase of a psalm which invites, and receives, a sober performance. I’m reminded of Goudimel writing sober psalm settings to give the French Protestants suitable, Godly entertainment.

Later songs, such as My mistress had a little dog (dateable after 1596) can take on a certain madrigalian vivacity, helped by Byrd’s word-painting. But the overall impression is of something serious and slightly sober; there is liveliness but there is little skittishness here. But in My mistress had a little dog Kirkby’s delivery is so dead-pan than I’m not really sure that it works. Surely she would imbue the line with more vivacity if it was Monteverdi, say.

Perhaps part of the reason for this soberness is that the accompaniment is viol consort. Fretwork provide admirable accompaniment, their rich dark tones complemented by lively articulation and fine phrasing.

In his preface to the 1588 book Byrd says that the songs were to persuade everyone to learn to sing, but then goes on to emphasise the need for a beautiful voice to perform them. This emphasis on sheer beauty of sound and the expressivity of the vocal line, rather than simple word-painting, is what characterises Kirkby’s interpretations.

They come into their own in the purely instrumental numbers, including one based on In Manus tuas from the 1605 Gradualia. Instrumental music seems never to have been one of Byrd’s main concerns, though the two Fantasias were published in 1611 when fashion favoured including such pieces in vocal collections.

The songs performed here include a couple of curiosities. The noble and famous Queen comes from a manuscript owned by the catholic Edward Paston. The text is Paston’s replacement text, in memory of Mary Queen of Scots; the original text was While Phoebus us’d to dwell. Inevitably this sort of substitution can sound forced and disjointed. David Pinto postulates that Out of the orient crystal skies from the same collection, is also a substitute text.

And what of the singer of these songs? Her crystalline timbre is in wonderful contrast to the richness of Fretwork’s accompaniment. This means that you never lose sight of the vocal line; it is always distinct. Kirkby also brings to the songs her fine sense of line and a great musicality. Though she projects the text well, I did find her overall interpretation a little cool; perhaps this is her response to the style. Where some reviewers have heard sincerity, crisp diction and a highlighting of the poetry of the text, I tend to hear a beautiful, cool perfection that leaves me wondering whether I would prefer a performance that emoted a little more.

It is interesting to turn to the Hyperion disc recorded in 2003 by Robin Blaze and Concordia. Like Kirkby, Blaze has a beautiful voice albeit one with different qualities. The keen edge that he brings to his tone seems to suit this music well and I feel that the songs on his disc sit rather better in his voice than those on Kirkby’s disc. Blaze also points up the words more than Kirkby, which is something that I like. Another difference is that Blaze and Concordia experiment with adding a lute to the mixture, based on fragmentary evidence from the Paston manuscripts. This creates an interesting texture, which I rather like.

I can’t honestly articulate reasons for choosing either the Kirkby or the Blaze disc except personal preference when it comes to voices. They barely overlap in repertoire, so perhaps I should urge people to buy both.

This is a varied well-chosen programme, beautifully sung and played. Kirkby and Fretwork complement each other both in style and timbre. You never feel that Fretwork are simply accompanying; all the performers are partners. Lovers of this repertoire will want to buy Robin Blaze’s fine disc as well, but if you just choose one then you won’t go far wrong with this.

Robert Hugill

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My mind to me a kingdom is
Fantasia a 6 (III)
O Lord, how vain
Content is rich
Constant Penelope
Pavan a 6
Galliard a 6
My mistress had a little dog
O that most rare breast
The noble famous Queen
Fantasia a 4 (III)
Out of the orient crystal skies
O lord, bow down thine heavn’ly eyes
Fantasia a 6
Truth at the first
O you that hear this voice
He that all earthly pleasure scorns