For various reasons, the consort songs -- for voice and viol consort -- of William Byrd have never been terribly well known. They don't have the compelling accompanying narrative of Byrd's religious music, rife with the sociopolitical intrigue of Elizabethan England. Nor do they offer accessible fun for all like the madrigals of the following generation, something Byrd seemed to acknowledge when he arranged some of his consort songs for several madrigal-style voice parts. The texts of the consort songs included on this superb release by soprano Emma Kirkby and the viol ensemble Fretwork are mostly dark and inward. Several are religious in theme, one deals with a terrific little dog whose head is bashed in by a thug, and only one, a setting of Sir Philip Sidney's "O you that hear this voice," could be called lighthearted. Byrd's music is not nimble in the madrigalian way, but rather looks back to the intricacies of Netherlandish polyphony.
These pieces, then, demand serious listening -- as Byrd himself indicated. But our own times are as unsettled as those in which Byrd worked, and maybe the listening public is ready for thoughtful songs that contend, as several here do, that contentment is to be found only inside the mind, not in material things. Kirkby certainly makes a case for this music as the equal of Byrd's sacred output. Of the more than 100 albums she has released, this must rank near the top of the list in ambition and sheer beauty. Many of the songs are in a modified strophic form that deserts the structure of musical repetition at a particularly profound moment in the text, and Kirkby, with expertly sensitive accompaniment from Fretwork, captures the drama inherent in songs that develop in this way. Fretwork shines as well in the instrumental pieces interspersed among the fairly substantial (five- to eight-minute) consort songs, and the difficult sound of viol music is beautifully rendered by Harmonia Mundi's engineers. The liner notes, naturally enough, are rather tough going for those new to this music, and they presume a certain level of knowledge of English history. ("Tyburn," if you come away wondering, was a public hanging ground.) Unlike many Renaissance releases, this one would be a strikingly poor choice for a social gathering. To those in search of serious music for serious times, however, it is recommended in the strongest terms.