The instrumental selections were actually composed for viol consort. This included several fantasias, wide-ranging in style, by Orlando Gibbons and the harmonically adventurous William Lawes. Far more satisfying were masterpieces of the genre by the lesser-known John Jenkins and the towering William Byrd. Byrd’s fantasia “Two Parts in One” and complex setting of the “In Nomine” tune showcased that composer’s contrapuntal rigor, harmonic invention and melodic fancy.
Most of the pieces sung by Davies were arranged for viol consort by Richard Boothby, co-founder of Fretwork and one of its bass viol players. (In pieces written for multiple voices, the viols covered the other parts, which viol consorts often did.) Davies deployed his pliant, beautiful voice with disarming simplicity, standing in front of the gently sounding instruments ringed around him.
In the slow lament of “Ye Sacred Muses,” Byrd’s memorial tribute to his late mentor, Thomas Tallis, Davies soared to a heart-rending high note with grace. Madrigals by Carlo Gesualdo stirred the passions with hair-raising chromatic surprises. Two songs by Ralph Vaughan Williams worked surprisingly well accompanied by viols, creating a folk-music-like air in “The Sky Above the Roof,” for example. Two songs by Michael Nyman, composed for the score of a 1995 film, put these ancient instruments into a pleasing pop-ballad idiom, contrasted with a more operatic idiom in arrangements of Handel arias.
A gorgeous encore, Henry Purcell’s “Music for a While,” from Fretwork and Davies’s lovely Nyman and Purcell disc released earlier this year on Signum Classics, closed out the evening with its rapturous phrasing and charming tone painting.