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GRAMOPHONE (06/2021)
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Reviewer: Fabrice Fitch

Published in 1588, Psalmes, Sonets, & Songs was Byrd’s first English-texted collection. Some individual pieces are very well known, but here we have it for the first time in its entirety. Following their complete recording of the 1575 Cantiones sacrae (issued jointly with Tallis – Obsidian, 3/11), Alamire pick up where The Cardinall’s Musick’s complete Latin-texted music for ASV (which Skinner co-directed and in which several of the present cast participated) left off. The singers’ pedigree in this repertory is matched by the instrumentalists: Richard Boothby appeared in the Hilliard Ensemble’s fine mid-1980s anthology with London Baroque, alongside other past members of Fretwork.

Each disc charts a course through the three text types, combining voices and instruments in a number of ways, as per Byrd’s prefatory remarks. Alamire appear alone, while Fretwork accompany the soloists in most strophic songs (they also take a few by themselves). Variety is built in; and as one expects from these interpreters, the performances are seldom less than immaculate. The vocalists do especially well: O Lord who in thy sacred tent and Although the heathen poets are as balanced and precise pieces of ensemble singing as I’ve heard in a while, the first solemn without being ponderous, the second balancing warmth and lively detail. Alamire vary their tone nicely for the collection’s only foreign-language setting, La virginella, but – talking of madrigalisms – when Byrd attains a heightened degree of expressivity (Even from the depth) one can’t help thinking that a more sharply etched response would yield still richer dividends.

The vocal soloists account for about half the selections. The standout is mezzo Martha McLorinan, who deals admirably with Lullaby, my sweet little baby and Come to me grief forever – no mean feat, given how well known these are. In Blessed is he that fears the Lord she is calmly unaffected and yet affecting, though she doesn’t quite tap into the startling bitterness of Farewell false love. Tenor Nicholas Todd is used more sparingly, but O Lord how long wilt thou forget and Why do I use my paper, ink and pen are both stylishly done. Soprano Grace Davidson’s luminous voice, though undoubtedly well suited to this repertory, often sits a fraction too high, which may account for the lesser variety of shading and character to her contributions: the cross-rhythms of Though Amaryllis dance in green are undercooked, the viols’ phrasing lacking the incisiveness of London Baroque’s account (try the opening phrase, or that of My mind to me a kingdom is). As accompanists, Fretwork cede the limelight to the vocalists, but on hearing their brisk approach to All as a sea (where they are by themselves) I found myself willing them to be more dynamic throughout. Some effects feel forced: the doubling of the bass at endings, for instance, or the pizzicato used for some verses, which pulls the harmonic rug from under the singer at times. Will this cast go on to record Byrd’s two subsequent English-texted collections? Let’s hope so, for overall this is a very fine start.

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