Here's a two-for-one reissue that makes sense rather than just suggesting an attempt to wring the last few dollars, euros, or yen out of recordings that have run their course. The two CDs were made (apparently) separately in the late '90s, with countertenor James Bowman and soprano Susan Hamilton, respectively, joining Belgium's Ricercar Consort. Contrary to the ordering on the cover, the first disc, featuring Bowman, is dedicated to Byrd, the second, with Hamilton, to Alfonso Ferrabosco II. (Actually, several anonymous works are included on both discs.) Viol consort music was, in the intentionally vague words of the sixteenth century motto reproduced as the title of the booklet essay, "apt for viols and voices." It was a music for sophisticated amateurs who might perform the polyphony with whatever forces were available; the solo voice (not always on top) plus viols configuration must have been a common one. Both singers blend so subtly into the group of viols that each seems almost like one more viol. The real fascination of this two-disc release is that it leads you into some of the stylistic distinctions among the composers who worked in this rather intellectual tradition. Alfonso Ferrabosco II, an Italian who came to England to serve the British crown, was a generation younger than William Byrd, the king of all composers for viols and one whose inward nature responded passionately to the genre. Ferrabosco's music represents an elaboration on the classic style represented by Byrd; the second disc includes complex all-instrumental pieces like the Fantasia on the hexachord, chromatically cycling through different statements of a six-note subject in such a way as to suggest that some variant of equal temperament was known to the first people who played the piece. Even in vocal pieces Ferrabosco's music comes off as more extreme than Byrd's, more aimed toward startling the listener. The Ricercar Consort clarifies the details of the music in other ways, as well; antiphonal effects usually hidden in viol recordings are carefully delineated through the placement of the players in relation to the microphones, and the presence of the unusual lyra-viol employed by Ferrabosco, with a rich sound generated by vibrating open strings, is worth the purchase price by itself. The texts of the consort songs have a distinctive refined melancholy, and the Ricercar Consort draws that melancholy out with deliberate, perfectly controlled performances on period instruments. The whole set is lovely, and even over two discs of fairly homogeneous music it never becomes dull. A strong candidate for a viol consort purchase if you're going to make just one.
AllMusic Review by James Manheim
Track Listing - Disc 1
Track Listing - Disc 2