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Review: Chelys Consort with Helen Charlston, ‘The Honour of William Byrd’

It’s just a little over 400 years since the death of one of England’s greatest composers, William Byrd (1623).

Cambridge Early Music’s latest concert, an engrossing survey of his music and poetry with the distinguished Chelys Consort of Viols and celebrated mezzo-soprano Helen Charlston, had the audience of St Catherine’s College chapel on Saturday evening completely enthralled.

Helen Charlston. Picture: Benjamin Ealovega
Helen Charlston. Picture: Benjamin Ealovega

Byrd as a Catholic convert, like many of his recusant contemporaries, occupied the uneasy world of the Protestant Elizabeth 1, courting her favour yet being in constant danger of the terrible consequences of losing it. The programme acknowledged this, including works which both eulogised the Queen, ‘O Lord Make Thy Servant Elizabeth’, ‘Rejoice Unto The Lord’, while at the same time reminding us of the capricious power she wielded. ‘Why do I use my paper, ink, and pen’ was Byrd’s epitaph for the Jesuit Edmund Campion executed for his faith, and ‘Wretched Albinus’, his poem written on the Earl of Essex beheaded for treason.

Byrd’s beautiful music which has come down to us through the centuries was impeccably performed by the 5-member Chelys Consort on instruments stringed with gut instead of steel, lending an especial historical authenticity to their tonal quality. The Consort’s marvellously integrated ‘knitted sound’, as member Jenny Bullock described their employment of bass, treble and tenor viols, was deployed to wonderful effect throughout their performance of various Fantasias and In Nomines with rhythms ranging from the jaunty and folky ‘Selinger’s Round’ to measures akin to the music of an Irish jig (‘Fantasia a5’)

Chelys Consort
Chelys Consort

Helen Charlston’s voice was the Consort’s perfect accompaniment.

A recent BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist, Helen has since received so many awards and accolades that it’s already difficult to see what else there is possibly left for her to achieve. In the course of the performance she complimented Chelys Consort member Alison Kinder for her expert assembling of the evening’s tribute, and began the concert with Byrd’s invocation to Clio (‘Thou Poet’s friend’) as the appropriate Muse to facilitate a happy relationship between his music and poetry. Clio is the goddess of the lyre, symbol of the poet. In fact the words of a song are still known as its ‘lyrics’.

A rare secular piece, ‘This Sweet And Merry Month of May’, accentuated Byrd as a madrigalist and reminded us, too, of how much in his day was made of the month of May, herald of summer, with its light and warmth replacing what must have been a pretty grim existence, much of it literally in the dark, and at last enabling people to live outdoors, bathe in the streams, enjoy fresh food and so on.

As with the poetry of many of his contemporaries Byrd’s verses often require maximum intellectual engagement with their conceits, or ‘conceptions’, running in parallel with their musical arrangements. ‘All As A Sea’, for example, discourses on the common trope of the individual as a ship on the sea of life. Man is ruled by his pursuit of pleasure which for each becomes the tyrannical master of his particular vessel. ‘Ah Silly (simple) Soul’ contrasts the true and clear perception of love which heavenly virtue grants but which is so often missed by the blind eyes of lust.

Disease and war carried off many people, too. ‘Fair Britain Isle’ is an elegy on the premature death from typhoid of a teenage son of James 1, while an equally premature fate befell Sir Philip Sydney, remembered by Byrd in ‘Come to Mee Griefe’ For Ever,’ following the poet’s death in battle.

Helen Charlston, outstanding throughout the concert, was at her absolute best when singing some of these lengthier, elegiac poems to which she lent a noble and compelling seriousness: ‘With Lilies White’, ‘Fair Britain Isle’, ‘Come To Mee Griefe For Ever’. To the final words of Byrd’s ‘Ye Sacred Muses’, his elegy on the death of Thomas Tallis (‘Tallis is dead and Music dies’), she convincingly transmitted the emotion of Byrd’s own grief at the irreplaceable loss of his friend.

This carefully organised journey through the various elements of Byrd’s life and art cumulatively revealed a many-faceted being. Signposting headings reflecting his passion for music and poetry, his love of his country, his capacity for joy and friendship, his roles as elegist and encomiast, ensured that our close encounter with him, courtesy of some unforgettable singing and musical arrangements, would make our experience of him both captivating and intensely real.


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