Friday 12 January 2024

Byrd Compared: Phantasm & Anna Prohaska celebrate the consort song

William Byrd

Byrd Compared: Byrd and English Song; Anna Prohaska, Phantasm; Wigmore Hall
Reviewed 10 January 2024

A programme celebrating the sheer diversity of William Byrd's consort songs, rendered with commitment and absolute identification by Anna Prohaska.

The consort song was a peculiarly English form from the late 16th and early 17th centuries for a solo voice accompanied by viols and the form continued alongside the Italian madrigal and the lute song. Viol consorts were a sociable, private thing, groups of friends would gather for such, which meant that the consort song was a similar sort of event, definitely more for the parlour than anything more public.

For their concert at Wigmore Hall on Wednesday 10 January 2023, Byrd Compared: Byrd and English Song, the viol consort Phantasm (Laurence Dreyfus, Jonathan Manson, Emilia Benjamin, Markku Luolajan-Mikkola) had clearly decided to mix things up somewhat and presented a programme of consort songs, not with a familiar specialist singer, but with the challenging intelligence of British-Austrian soprano Anna Prohaska.

The programme focused on the music of William Byrd, but there was also music by his older contemporary Tallis, as well the younger challenger John Dowland. The evening was arranged in themed sections, The Demise of Tallis, Hints of the Erotic, Tears and Joys, Devotion and Piety and Fallen Heroes, and throughout the consort songs were interspersed with Byrd's fantasias and in nomines.

We began with The Demise of Tallis and three works by the older master, the delightful A Solfing Song where the soloist uses the names of the notes as words, the wonderfully affecting O nata lux de lumine and one of Tallis' psalm tunes for Matthew Parker, Why fum'th in fight, best known for RVW's use of it in the Tallis Fantasia. Byrd was represented by Come woeful orpheus and the section ended, inevitably, with Byrd's profoundly moving Ye sacred muses, its dignified melancholy ending with the words 'Tallis is dead, and Music dies'.

Prohaska has a wonderfully plangent voice with a terrific sense of line, and if you simply sat back then you could enjoy they way she became part of the ensemble, a fifth part weaving around the four viols. Her commitment to and identification with the music was absolute. However, I found her articulation of the English lacking somewhat, the placement perhaps a little too far back and I wanted the words to have greater primacy.

The second section, Hints of the Erotic, brought in a more perky sense of the dance in a sequence of very secular numbers by Byrd. The characterful Susannah Fair might deal with a sacred subject but the treatment was distinctly perky, whilst Amaryrillis danced in green in a very engaging manner. Prohaska brought a nice sense of narrative to In fields abroad, the opening rather serious but a sly sexiness creeping in the final verse. La virginella set an Italian text by Ariosto, and we got to enjoy the subject interplay of rhythms between voice and viols. We ended with Laurence Dreyfus' consort arrangement of Gersualdo's madrigal, Itene, o miei sospiri.

The second half began with Dowland in the sequence Tears and Joys. Dowland didn't write consort songs, but he wrote one set of pavans for lute and viols, one of these refers to his song Flow my tears, so Laurence Dreyfus used this example to create consort versions of From silent night, Flow, my tears, Shall I strive with words to move, My thoughts are wing'd with hopes and Sorrow stay. The change wrought on them was remarkable, making them larger scale, more stately and with far less focus on the voice. And even in the most melancholy of songs, the viols were there articulating the rhythms given a lovely undertow to the voice.

Devotion and Piety gave us Byrd's Miserere and O Lord, how vain setting Sir Philip Sidney, along with Lullaby, to create a picture of music that was simple yet complex, and often with a familiar feel to it. We ended with Fallen Heroes, the sober Fair Britain Isle which lamented the death of Henry, Prince of Wales, and finally My mistress had a dog, a perkily characterful piece that was deceptive as the whole was an allegory of the demise of Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex.

Throughout the programme the viols slipped in instrumental numbers, each giving us a lovely taste of the way Byrd clearly enjoyed the sociable polyphony of the viol consort and the music, whatever its mood, often well articulated, the whole enlivened with rhythmic detail.

This was an enjoyable and illuminating programme, and whilst Prohaska's approach to the music did not quite satisfy me in terms of text, there was no doubting the wonderfully vivid sense of line and commitment that she brought to the music.

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