Consort Songs (1588)
Grace Davidson (soprano); Alamire; Fretwork/David Skinner
Inventa INV 1006 157:14 mins (2 discs)
The first complete recording of William Byrd’s 1588 publication of consort songs ‘to content divers humors’ is an endlessly varied collection of sonnets, psalms and pastorals, alongside songs ‘of sadness and piety’, including two funeral elegies written on the death of the courtier-poet Sir Philip Sidney. Byrd’s flexible five-part scoring allows the performer to realise these works in several ways – Alamire’s director David Skinner opting to interweave solo voices and viols with a cappella and instrumental realisations.
Though Byrd includes a handful of sonnets ‘to bee merrie’, an underlying wistfulness pervades the music – a quality which sounds all the more poignant in these artless, fresh-voiced readings. Soprano Grace Davidson and mezzo Martha McLorinan have ingenuous, boyish voices, coloured here and there by a delicate vibrato (which slightly compromises the lucidity of the a cappellaworks); they’re perfectly balanced by Nicholas Todd’s light and lucid tenor. The real beauty of these readings, though, is the singers’ poetic nuancing of the texts, which they articulate with glassy clarity. The members of the viol consort Fretwork play with their characteristic grace, weaving gossamer textures around the voices. In sum, the performances, masterminded by scholar and director David Skinner, are a delight from start to finish. There’s even a resonant connection between the music and the recording venue, All Saints’ Church in Holdenby, Northamptonshire, which was formerly on the extensive estate of Sir Christopher Hatton – music-loving friend of Queen Elizabeth I and the patron of this collection of works.