LABELS: Harmonia Mundi
ALBUM TITLE: Byrd Consort Songs
WORKS: Consort Song; Fantasias
PERFORMER: Emma Kirkby, Fretwork
CATALOGUE NO: HMU 907383
‘Never such a bird’ – this admiring homage to the ageing composer applies equally to this spellbinding recording. In his consort songs, Byrd successfully dignified the vogue for canzonet-style writing by combining it with the complex polyphony of the chanson and native English enthusiasm for the viol. Here, in outstanding performances by Emma Kirkby and Fretwork, is an excellent representation of not only Byrd’s aesthetic vision for the genre he virtually invented, but also its stylistic variety.
No soprano is better suited to realising Byrd’s ambitions than Kirkby. Her crystalline tone keeps her line distinct, regardless of the range or instrumental combination in which it appears. Her performances are guided above all by the lyrics, which determine the music’s emotional character, and Kirkby highlights the poetry of the texts through her crisp diction and sincerity. The dynamic range of Fretwork is stunning, its tone vibrantly rich and its careful paragraphing and sensitive response to the lyrics bringing these songs to life. The venue’s acoustic, excellently recorded, enhances the warmth and bloom of the ensemble.
The imaginative programming shows Byrd’s breadth, ranging from devotional to bawdy, and avoids predictable choices in favour of unrecorded jewels. Of the two other discs devoted to Byrd’s consort songs, only Robin Blaze’s rivals this one (Hyperion); in Phantasm’s recording, the vibrato of the singers obtrudes upon the text (Simax). This recording is a benchmark for composer and performers alike. Berta Joncus