Psalmes, Sonets & Songs of sadnes and pietie
Alamire, Fretwork, David Skinner
Inventa Records INV1006. 2CDs, 78’54 + 78’20
The 1588 Psalmes, Sonets, & songs of sadnes and pietie was William Byrd’s first solo publication after the Cantiones Sacrae of 1575, a joint venture with Thomas Tallis. This recording is also a joint venture between the chamber choir Alamire and the viol consort Fretwork. It was recorded, appropriately, in the isolated church of All Saints’ Church, Holdenby, in Northamptonshire, the only surviving relic of a village that was moved by Sir Christopher Hatton, Elizabeth I’s Lord Chancellor and the patron of the 1588 collection, when he built (in 1583) the nearby Holdenby House, itself now reduced to a few remnants from its initial grandeur as one of the largest houses in the country.
This very welcome recording is the first to offer a complete performance of the collection, which includes such well-known pieces as ‘Come to me grief forever’ and ‘O that most rare breast’ (funeral elegies for Sir Philip Sidney), and ‘Why do I use my ink, paper and pen?’ which is thought to refer to the 1580 martyrdom of the Jesuit Edmund Campion. These rather sombre pieces are balanced by secular songs spanning all levels of human emotion. As Byrd writes, he offers “Musicke of sundrie sorts, and to content diuers humors’.
As in the original publication, each CD is divided into two well-structured programmes of Psalms, Sonnets & pastorales, and Songs of ‘sadness and pietie‘, each CD ending with one of the two funeral elegies for Sir Philip Sidney. Byrd states that the pieces can be performed by a variety of ‘voyces or Instruments’, which is exactly what happens on this recording. Thirteen of the 35 pieces are sung in consort by Alamire, four are purely instrumental and the remainder are in the solo voice and viols format by soloists Grace Davidson, soprano, Martha McLorinan, mezzo, and Nicholas Todd tenor. Some of the longer Psalm verses have been sensibly cut, to enable all the pieces to fit on 2 CDs. The order of pieces within the three categories is not the same as the original publication, but their position there is noted.
The result is a well-balanced programme of beautiful performances of exquisite music. The accompaniments are appropriate to the texts, including, for example, the plucked viols at the start of ‘My mind to me a kingdom’. David Skinner’s information programme notes give background on the music and the recording venue near to the current Holdenby House. Although several pieces have been recorded many times, there are several first recordings and the chance to hear the whole set is well worth the investment.