Byrd: Psalmes, Songs and Sonnets (1611)
The Sixteen, Fretwork, Harry Christophers
With 2023 marking the 400th anniversary of William Byrd’s death (c.1540-1623) one might be expecting a surge in recordings of his sacred choral works, and if so, I would advise you strongly not to pass over this largely secular collection. It is an extraordinarily poignant release that will delight, distract and could also, potentially, recalibrate our thinking about the late, great, Byrd. These "Psalmes, Songs and Sonnets" which Byrd intended "...to content every humour: either melancholy, merry, or mixt of both." are his last full publication, and it's somewhat extraordinary to think that although there are several well-known pieces here, the collection hasn’t before been presented in a single release.
I particularly enjoyed the virtuosic three-part music recorded with bright, agile solo voices from The Sixteen emphasising the sparkling, soaring soprano parts and dexterous tenor writing. There is also a world of contrasting emotion between, for instance, In winter cold with text by Geffrey Whitney and Psalm setting Sing ye to our Lord a new song with its nifty triple rhythms. The singers are certainly animated by this music but never overwhelmed: despite several lines spanning two octaves and demanding much agility from each performer it always sounds luminous, and free. No mean feat.
Fretwork performs the glorious 4-part Fantasia with a rich tone and many neatly articulated phrases. They are, however, at their sumptuous best with Katy Hill in O God that guides the cheerful sun and Elisabeth Paul in How vain the toils. Having loved their previous performance of Turn our captivity, O Lord with Clare Wilkinson (“The Silken Tent” Signum SICD826) I was delighted to find that an all-vocal performance here could be just as magical, the use of text on each part not distracting from the delicate, imitative opening at all.
This is a landmark release finally addressing one of the most obvious oversights in Byrd's recorded catalogue. It's an exquisite album of unparalleled beauty that will bear repeated listening long past the anniversary year and Kerry McCarthy's generous essay makes a superb companion and guide.
To read the full text of this review please visit www.gramophone.co.uk (November 2022)