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GRAMOPHONE (07/2022)
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Reviewer :
Fabrice Fitch

It’s four decades since The Consort of Musicke devoted an entire programme to John Wilbye (L’Oiseau-Lyre, 7/82), and the title of this new recording, ‘Draw On Sweet Night’, recalls one of the finest English madrigal anthologies, made just a few years later by The Hilliard Ensemble (EMI/ Erato, 2/89). Like their predecessors, I Fagiolini draw on Wilbye’s two books, issued a decade apart; a lesson that their recording more clearly teaches is how much Wilbye’s range widened in that interval, formally and affectively. I Fagiolini also opt for all-vocal interpretation, which is a clear gain: although viols appear on very few tracks of the earlier anthology, I hear no gain in doing so, least of all in Draw on sweet night itself. With nearly half an hour’s extra music, this programme offers a more rounded view of Wilbye, any potential surfeit of sameness being offset by clever programming: the recital is structured as a series of waves, each progressing from three to six-voice pieces.


Unsurprisingly, perhaps, I Fagiolini are at their best in the more richly scored numbers: there’s more room for them to luxuriate and feed off each another. They are sensitive to Wilbye’s punchlines and endings, and those moments that are intended to stand out – such as the exclamation ‘Oh me, that I were young again!’ towards the end of Thou art but young. There are too many of these to single out, but ‘singing and dying’, the last words of Lady, your words doe spite me, is pleasingly economical, and differently handled from The Consort of Musicke’s more indulgent approach. There where I saw is particularly well handled, sensitive to the twists and turns of the text and music, building to an impressive climax; and Where most my thoughts, which concludes the disc, combines Wilbye’s melancholy vein and I Fagiolini’s qualities to the full.


The acoustic chosen for this recording, while not bone-dry, is certainly drier than one is used to in recordings of this sort (it reminds me of Les Arts Florissants’ current Gesualdo cycle). The sense of immediacy is palpable but it also exposes the slightest misstep of ensemble or individual. Coming straight after the six-voice jolt of Cruell, behold my heavy ending (whose ending does indeed pack a punch), the three-voice I live, and yet me thinks I do not breathe (or, later, the four-voice Happy, O happy he) seemstentative, lacking the finishing touch. One might also have wished for a more grounded bass to anchor the texture (perhaps another result of the chosen acoustic), such as one finds with The Consort of Musicke or The Hilliard Ensemble’s anthologies. Whether I Fagiolini fully justify the claims made for Wilbye’s ranking among madrigal composers in John Milsom’s characteristically eloquent note I’m not sure, but they give listeners more than enough to draw their own conclusions.

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