Review of Ornythology: Byrd and Friends

Ornythology: Byrd and Friends

Venere Lute Quartet Gamut Music GM04

Lute ensembles are such a rarity—only a handful of such groups exist—that any new recording of music for lute ensemble is worth celebrating. When that CD is an addition to the catalog of the Venere Lute Quartet, it is a special occasion for lute enthusi- asts.

Founded in the early 2000s, the Venere Lute Quartet— Douglas Freundlich, Gail Gillispie, Christopher Morrongiello, and Phillip Rukavina—are something of an institution now: this is their fourth CD, and the ensemble has been a regular feature at LSA gatherings for many years. Ornythology is a welcome addi- tion to the very small catalog of music for lute ensemble.

The quartet performs on matched instruments by Vancou- ver luthier Grant Tomlinson. These lutes are modelled on originals by Vendelio Venere, and closely akin to each other by design and

scale. They are meant to be played in ensemble, and in the hands of four friends with a long experience of making music together, produce such a uniform “concord of sweet sounds” that at times one has the impression that a single instrument is being performed upon. All of the quartet’s instruments on this recording are strung with gut strings by Dan Larsen’s Gamut Music, Inc. The album was issued by Gamut as well, part of their small but growing cata- log of high-quality early music titles.

Ornythology is recorded with a very clear stereo image that spreads the four performers across the listener’s perceived au- ral space. When listening on headphones or in a room with speak- ers separated correctly to clearly project stereo, the impression is that the quartet sits before you: bass, tenor, alto, and descant lutes from lowest to highest, left to right. The album is beautifully recorded, evoking an acoustically resonant yet intimate environ- ment: Duluth’s Sacred Heart Music Center.

All of the music hails from late sixteenth- and early sev- enteenth-century England, arranged for lute by and for the quartet. Much, or at least some of this music will be familiar to lutenists and even perhaps to the casual early music enthusiast. While the emphasis is on music by William Byrd (ten of the CD’s twenty-one tracks), other composers represented include Thomas Tallis, Al- fonso Ferrabosco, Orlando Gibbons, and Thomas Morley, as well as six pieces by John Dowland. Friends indeed!

The selections chosen comprise a program balanced be- tween pieces that were originally either choral works or dances, and although the music is arranged from a variety of original sources including works for keyboard, choir, and viol consort, it all sounds natural and “at home” in arrangement for lute quartet. Chestnuts like Tallis’s “If Ye Love Me,” the English country dance classic “Sellinger’s Round,” and Dowland’s “Captain Digorie Piper his Galliard” alternate with less familiar tunes. In a few cases (notably Byrd’s “Emendemus in Melius”) the quartet takes a brisker tempo than a choir would when performing the choral works, likely due to the lute’s inability to sustain long-value notes to the extent sing- ers are able to. The resulting performances make a slightly dif- ferent impression emotionally than sung performances do—very interesting listening for those who are familiar with the originals as vocal music.

As any lutenist knows, one of the difficulties of ensemble playing with rhythmic precision when you play a plucked string instrument is that compared to our bowed strings brethren, we have nowhere to hide! Everyone must be perfectly together. And that is perhaps the finest quality of this and the Venere Lute Quar- tet’s other recordings: a unity in performance that rings true from beginning to end.

Walter Bitner
"Ornythology: Byrd and Friends." Lute Society of America Quarterly, Volume 53, No. 4, Winter 2018

Posted on August 22, 2019 .