is a certain aura to Elizabethan music when performed by counter-tenors
and we are incredibly blest at the moment with several very fine
ones. At least three of them have recorded for and/or do record
for Hyperion: David Cordier, James Bowman and Robin Blaze.
The repertoire on this disc seems ideal for counter-tenors.
It comes as something of a surprise to discover that Byrd's consort
songs have not been tackled by this voice on a complete CD before.
First we should establish what exactly is a consort
song. Mostly they are for voice accompanied by a group of viols,
normally four: soprano, alto, tenor and bass. The subject matter
is various but often it is serious if not rather poe-faced; dare
I say Protestant. The 'Elegy' on the death of a famous person,
like the ones here for Sir Philip Sydney ('Come to me grief for
ever' and 'O that most rare breast') and for Thomas Tallis ('Ye
sacred muses') are typical. Sometimes they extol the virtues of
a pure life away from earthly desires. Byrd's fine 'O Lord how
vain are all those frail delights' (not recorded here) is an example.
Not all of these songs are elegiac and an effort has been made
by Concordia to search out some more light-hearted ones, for example
'Who likes to love' and 'Constant Penelope'.
Given this background it may seem odd that some
of the consort songs are given here as lute-songs. The chosen
cover picture should give a hint however, as it is a detail of
Vermeer's beautiful but inscrutable painting known as 'Woman with
a lute'. All is explained by Elizabeth Kenny (the lutenist) and
Mark Levy (a viol player) in their useful accompanying booklet
notes. They write "A Spanish scribe working for Paston's
household produced a set of lute books that are a major - and
in some cases the only - source of Byrd's' later songs. ... The
lute tablature contains most of the polyphony in a much more economical
form than partbooks. Usually the vocal part is omitted, so we
are left with complete accompaniments. In some cases however,
the vocal line is present." Later “... It has been
suggested that they may have been self-contained instrumental
So we have performances with viol consort only
('Come to me grief for ever') and performances with lute only,
as for example the tender 'O dear life' with words by Sir Philip
Sidney himself. There are also performances for the full consort
that is for lute doubling on viols (' Rejoice unto the Lord');
these I particularly like.
I suppose ideally one would like a disc of this
music with three voices, say soprano, alto and tenor sharing the
songs between them. However, not only does this disc offer a variety
of performance 'colours' but there is also a variety of musical
mood and style, making the whole disc absolutely delightful.
Full texts have been provided and most are anonymous,
but as well as Sidney, Sir Edward Dyer is represented ('O that
most rare breast') and a translation after Ovid (‘Constant
Penelope’). I found myself wondering if the other texts
might be by Byrd himself, especially the exquisite 'Lullaby' a
sombre but beautiful Christmas song which lasts over twelve minutes
but which never drags.
The recording is first-rate and seems to be ideal
with just enough space around the voice to give it presence yet
with detail audible especially when the light cool lute sound
is heard against the viol consort.