The Reformation in England had far-reaching
consequences in musical realms. Composers
were used to writing polyphonic masses
and motets for the Roman-Catholic liturgy.
The much more sober liturgy of the Church
of England had no need for these, so
there weren't many opportunities left
to compose in polyphonic style. One
of these opportunities was the viol
consort, an ensemble of three to five
viols which under Henry VIII had been
imported from Italy. During the 16th
century many pieces for viol consort
were composed, and in these composers
often used old liturgical chants as
cantus firmus. It is even possible that
in the performance of these pieces the
cantus firmus was sung. Several examples
of this kind of consort music are performed
here, as the tracklist shows. From here
it was a little step towards what is
known as the 'consort song', a polyphonic
piece in which mostly one voice is supported
by an ensemble of viols.
One of the composers
who put many efforts into this genre
was William Byrd, one of the foremost
composers of church music in the second
half of the 16th century. He wasn't
much interested in Italian-style madrigals
as they were written in England in his
time, nor in the lute song. Consort
music, and especially the consort song,
was much more appealing to this champion
of elaborate music. Byrd wrote more
than forty consort songs, which were
never published in their original form.
In his songbook of 1588, 'Psalmes, Sonets,
and songs of sadness and pietie', some
of them were arranged as partsongs.
Many consort songs
are of a religious or moralistic nature.
The picture on the cover of this disc
is well-chosen: it is an anonymous French
painting of about 1630, entitled "Allegory
of the vanity of earthly things". The
songs on this disc often refer to the
vanity of human life: "O that we woeful
wretches could behold how soon this
life doth pass" (track 4). Or "O Lord,
how vain are all our frail delights"
(track 10). Some songs are more specific
religious, like Ferrabosco's hymn 'Hear
me, O God', which is about sin and the
forgiveness through Jesus's death at
the cross. This song has been preserved
both in an instrumental version (Four
note pavan) and a version with the text
that is sung here. It shows that the
voice is part of the ensemble, just
one of the instruments.
This is one of the
strengths of this disc: Jill Feldman's
voice blends wonderfully well with the
viols, even though she uses a slight
vibrato. Another feature of these performances
is their theatrical nature, very unlike
most recordings of this kind of repertoire.
A good example of this approach is the
very first item on the disc, which is
almost acted, with a rhythmically rather
free delivery of the text. The dialogue
between Joan and John in Nicholson's
song (track 12) is very lively, in an
almost baroque operatic manner. The
viol consort contributes to this through
sometimes strong dynamic contrasts.
The songs of a religious or moral character
are performed with great expression.
Some of the most moving items are Byrd's
'O Lord, how vain' and Ferrabosco's
'Hear me, O God'.
The tempi seem sometimes
a little too slow, in particular in
Byrd's elegy on the death of his teacher,
Thomas Tallis. The use of ornamentation
is inconsistent, being absent where
one would expect it to appear. On the
whole a little more of it wouldn't harm.
The modern pronunciation of the text
As I said before, it
is quite possible, in the case of consort
pieces based on plainchant, that the
cantus firmus was originally sung. It
would have been nice had this practice
been applied here. However they are
performed with instruments only, and
they are played very well. The dynamic
contrasts we find in a number of pieces
on this disc are rather unusual, but
are musically convincing.
In short, this is a
fine disc, which brings an interesting
and captivating programme of outstanding
music, well performed and recorded.
Johan van Veen