Tuesday 6 April 2021

Music of sundrie sorts, and to content divers humours: Byrd's 1588 'Psalmes, Sonets & songs of sadness and pietie' in its first complete recording

William Byrd Psalmes, Sonets & songs of sadness and pietie ; Grace Davidson, Martha McLorinan, Nicholas Todd, Alamire, David Skinner; INVENTA

William Byrd Psalmes, Sonets & songs of sadness and pietie ; Grace Davidson, Martha McLorinan, Nicholas Todd, Alamire, Fretwork, David Skinner; INVENTA

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 6 April 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Byrd's 1588 publication consort and vocal music represents the diversity of the composer's talent in this, the first complete recording of the set

In the late 1580s and early 1590s, William Byrd published four collections of his music which between them demonstrate his range. The two volumes of Cantiones Sacrae (from 1589 and 1591) consist of 37 Latin motets, many complex and large scale and setting texts which would speak particularly to persecuted Catholics and being largely non-liturgical may have been seen by cultured Protestants as a form of vocal chamber music. In parallel there were two collections of English consort songs and madrigals, Psalmes, Sonets & songs of sadness and pietie (1588) and Songs of Sundrie Natures (1589), the first contains consort songs setting a variety of texts which can be performed either by voice and instruments, all voices or all instruments, whilst the second has music in in three, four, five and six parts, in diverse styles. Both these clearly aimed at Elizabethan households whether Protestant or Catholic. And Byrd's intention can be divined in words that he wrote in the 1588 publication 'Since singing is so good a thing, I wish all men would learn to sing'.

Alamire, director David Skinner, with Grace Davidson (soprano), Martha McLorinan (mezzo-soprano), Nicholas Todd (tenor) and the viol consort Fretwork have recorded the complete 1588 Sonets & songs of sadness and pietie for Inventa records, the first time the entire collection has been recorded.

Byrd's publication consists of 35 songs, divided into sections, Psalms (setting metrical psalms), Sonnets and pastorals, Songs of sadness and piety and Funeral Song of Sir Philip Sidney. They were probably all written as consort songs, a genre which involved a solo voice (often a high voice) and four viols. It was a highly popular form in Elizabethan England, but clearly Byrd decided to try to extend his market and in the publication the instrumental parts are also texted and the rubric makes it clear that you can perform the songs as consort songs, all sung or all instruments. One of Byrd's other projects in the 1580s was the publication of Musica Transalpina, a collection of Italian madrigals with new English texts, so clearly the idea of the unaccompanied vocal music was at the forefront of his mind.

To provided variety on the disc, Alamire opts for all three formats. Each disc takes a selection of the songs (17 on one, 18 on the other), with each organised according to Byrd's sections, starting with Psalms. Of these, 13 are performed with purely vocal forces, four purely instrumental and the rest are given as consort songs with the solos divided between soprano, mezzo-soprano and tenor (Grace Davidson, Martha McLorinan and Nicholas Todd). 

The patron of the 1588 was Elizabeth I's favourite, Sir Christopher Hatton (1540-1591) and the disc was rather aptly recorded at the 14th century church in the grounds of Holdenby House (originally built by Hatton, but the current house is around an eighth of the size of the original prodigy house). There is another figure, however, hovering over the collection, that of Sir Philip Sidney who died in 1585. Not only are the two songs in the section Funeral Song for Sir Philip Sidney, elegies for Sidney's death, but Byrd sets poems from Sidney's sonnet sequence Astrophel and Stella, and from the circle around the poet including such names as Sir Walter Raleigh and Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford.

David Skinner's booklet article raises an interesting point about how the Elizabethan's used the songs. Lullaby, my sweet little baby lasts 15 minutes, whilst a number of the psalms (which set metrical psalms) are long so that the two songs covering Psalm 119 would last 20 minutes together, though here Alamire has trimmed the verses. Clearly these pieces were as much about the text as about the music, though Byrd's contrapuntal writing is wonderfully deft and expressive.

The purely vocal works are sung one to a part so that all the music here has a finely intimate feel to it. These are beautifully well modulated performances where, particularly in the consort songs, the text is at the forefront. Despite the liveliness of such works as Though Amaryllis dance in green, the prevailing mood is sober yet expressive, with a strong vein of melancholy. Yet whilst it can be civilised and often dignified, there are plenty of felicitous details too. This is music as serious entertainment, rather than sheer frivolity.

By recording the whole collection, Alamire and friends have given us a chance to experience the remarkble diversity of Byrd's talent.

William Byrd (1543-1623)
Psalmes, Sonets & songs of sadness and pietie (1588)
Grace Davidson (soprano)
Martha McLorinan (mezzo-soprano)
Nicholas Todd (tenor)
David Skinner (director)
Recorded in church of All Saints, Holdenby Northamptonshire, 27-29 August 2020, 21-24 September 2020
INVENTA INV1006 2CDs [78.54, 78.20]

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