"The Early Byrd," with its appropriately punning title, presents an almost overwhelming taste of the early works of the Tudor composer William Byrd. His stunning versatility at even a young age emerges in over an hour of this collection's music. Everything from sacred works in Latin, Virginal keyboard music and more secular music in English appear here, arranged not by type or category, which would have produced a more academic or encyclopedic feel, but in an order that showcases the true range of Byrd's compositional skill. Latin motets appear alongside rich arrangements of viols that seem to float before the listener. Then a virginal comes in to provide even more variety to the mix. Some early music collections suffer from repetition where the arrangements and melodies of each piece almost seem to blend into one, giving the false impression that so-called "early music" was monolithic in style. "The Early Byrd" sits at the farthest extreme from such compilations.
The first four pieces exemplify this. "Attollite Portas" starts off with a hypnotic polyphony of Latin infused and unaccompanied singing of Psalm 24, verses 7 - 10. Next, the viols come in to provide the gorgeous lilting undertow of "Triumph with pleasant melody" in which a "sinner" and Christ have a musical dialogue in English concerning salvation. Period pronunciation was used, so, for example, listeners will not hear the word "rejoice" in the modern pronunciation, but a word that sounds closer to "Rejwess." This lends a definite aura of authenticity, particularly accompanied by an explanation in the CD booklet (thankfully downloadable from the Chandos website) explaining that detailed descriptions of period phonetics do still exist. So these seemingly lost pronunciations do not represent a mere educated guess. The next song, "O Lord, how vain," stands as one of the collection's high points. Words by Sir Philip Sidney on the vanity of earthly desire waft beautifully, almost to a painful degree, above a layer of viols that demands repeated listening. An absolutely amazing piece. Following this, "All in a Garden Green" brings in the unaccompanied virginal to present a completely different mood, setting and instrumentation. The entire collection, with some exceptions, flows in this manner with equal samplings of every style represented.
Nearly every track is a standout, but a few manage to rise above even these high standards. "My mind to me a kingdom is" follows the instrumentation of "O Lord, how vain" and "Triumph with pleasant melody" and contains melodies that could be described as "catchy" in an almost modern verse-chorus sense. The words by Sir Edward Dyer extol the life of the mind in nearly Stoic, or even Spinozistic, fashion: "My mind to me a kingdom is; Such perfect joy therein I find / That it excels all other bliss / Which God or Nature hath assign'd" and "Lo, thus I triumph as a king; My mind content with anything." Even people today could learn something from these words.
This collection showcases the often underrated power of "early music." Contrary to some popular belief, music at this time was quite sophisticated, poignant and capable of delivering a powerful physical reaction, in the manner of great music from any age. It also presents William Byrd as one of his era's great talents. These songs often approach the miraculous. Coupled with great performances all around on every instrument, including the human voice, "The Early Byrd" would entrance anyone who appreciates great music. Probably the best news is that a follow-up exists: "The Caged Byrd," which samples Byrd's later works. Both volumes are incredible.