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GRAMOPHONE (05/2023)
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Reviewer :
Fabrice Fitch

Reviewing these ensembles’ recording of Byrd’s 1588 Psalmes, Sonets, and Songs (6/21), I wondered whether they intended to survey all of the composer’s Englishtexted prints. Here’s the answer, and it’s mightily impressive. Their complete Songs of Sundrie Natures follows the composer’s grouping into numbers of voices, beginning with three and thence on to four, five and six (though allowing some reordering within each group). Of the three-voice set, the first few set the opening verses of the seven penitential psalms, and the next five deal mostly with winged creatures, including Cupid. The sacred numbers are done with just voices, while the secular ones include instruments – an understandable distinction but probably not one to which Byrd’s contemporaries would have adhered so rigidly. In any case, the four-, five- and six-voice sets are treated more flexibly.


The ensemble-singing here is first-rate and gets better as the set progresses; but whereas in the 1588 set the solo pieces were a mixed bag, here they are as consistent as the ensemble pieces, and the same might be said this time around of the instruments. ‘The greedy hawk’ sees soprano Rachel Haworth soar impressively to the top of her range at the end, but the ensemble really hit their stride with the four-voice ‘Wounded I am’, and the second disc is a string of bullseyes, poised, assured and habitually immaculate. The pace quickens for ‘When I was otherwise than now I am’, which is so rich contrapuntally that one would gladly have lingered a little over details. The dancelike ‘I thought love had been a boy’ is followed by ‘O dear life’, a setting of Philip Sidney that expresses the consort song economically at its most pure and lucid. All of which sets up the best-known piece of the set, ‘From Virgin’s womb’. The transitions from verse to chorus might have had more definition but the soloist’s eloquence matches Byrd’s here (I assume it is Martha MacLorinan, whose contributions to the previous set were so impressive); but pace Skinner, this is not the first recording to repeat the chorus after each verse, The Hilliard Ensemble having done so nearly 40 years ago (Erato, 6/88). Its companion, ‘An earthly tree’, though less well known, is scarcely less impressive, the two mezzo-sopranos keenly matched. The last few numbers are consummate: ‘Behold how good a thing it is’ has an exuberance that recalls Lassus, ‘Unto the hills mine eyes I lift’ is masterly in its counterpoint, and the finale, ‘Christ rising again’, closes the collection with one of its most memorable numbers, to which soloists, ensemble and instrumentalists all contribute (nowhere more so than in the lead-up to the ‘Amen’, whose syncopations show Byrd at his most exuberant, ‘restored to life’ indeed). One looks forward to hearing them all tackle this set’s eponymous successor, published nearly a quarter of a century later.

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