In 1588 the English not only routed the Spanish Armada, but William Byrd published the first of three collections designed primarily for domestic music making, Psalmes, Sonets & Songs of Sadnes and Pietie. While Byrd’s landmark contribution to Tudor sacred music is well known, this complete recording of Psalmes, Sonets & Songs allows us to gain a fuller understanding of his secular vocal music, particularly his madrigalian style. 

WIlliam Byrd

David Skinner has skilfully arranged the contents into two programs: a selection of psalms, followed by sonnets and pastorals, then songs of sadness and piety, ending with a funeral song for Sir Philip Sidney. Respecting both performance practice and the listener’s need for variety, some items are sung a cappella by Alamire, some are treated as solo songs accompanied by viol consort Fretwork, and a few are performed by Fretwork alone.

Alamire bring a rich, full sound to their offerings. Although the music is predominantly homophonic, its gently rippling rhythmic and polyphonic undercurrents are engagingly brought to life, as are the varying moods of the texts. The “sonnet” La Verginella is a shining case in point.

Among the solo singers, mezzo-soprano Martha McLorinan shines, delivering a beautiful but plangent account of the justly celebrated Lullaby, My Sweet Little Baby, while Grace Davidson might have used her refined soprano to bring greater pathos to Sir Walter Raleigh’s trenchant text, Farewell False Love. In Henry Walpole’s epitaph of Catholic priest Edmund Campion, Why Do I Use My Paper, Ink and Pen, Nicholas Todd brings expressive, limpid tenor tone to a text that would have been close to Byrd’s heart.

Fretwork’s suave, soft-grained tone perfectly complements the vocal elements of this very welcome enterprise, sympathetically recorded in the fourteenth-century estate church of Holdenby House, once the home of Sir Christopher Hatton, the collection’s dedicatee. 

Listen on Apple Music.

Composer: William Byrd
Works: Various works
Performers: Alamire, Fretwork, David Skinner
Label: Inventa INV1006