Folk Songs and Ballads is the first volume of a six-volume reissue set of the complete recorded works of the legendary counter-tenor, Alfred Deller. Altogether, the set numbers thirty-five discs, possibly making Deller the most recorded counter-tenor in history.
As soon as begin listening to these songs, you’ll find out why. At first, you may be awed by their variety. Two CDs are devoted to English drinking songs; another one to anonymous and traditional songs arranged by Ralph Vaughan Williams. Scattered throughout are creative arrangements of the songs of doleful Renaissance composer John Dowland. And the rest? Mostly anonymous, speckled with composers like Philip Rosseter, John Danyel, Thomas Morley, Francis Pilkington, and other poor souls lost to time. But awed as you’ll be by the simple beauty of these songs, you will be bowled over by the sheer artistry of Deller himself. It must have taken courage to sing male alto in the mid-fifties, when nobody else was doing it. He was comfortable singing in his pure, largely vibrato-free style, although he did apply melismas to songs like “Have you seen but a white lilly?” and “When Laura Smiles.”
Sometimes he sings accompanied by Desmond Dupré on lute, or by the other singers in the Deller Consort. And sometimes he sings acapella, but with such presence and conviction you’d barely notice. Whenever the Consort joins him, it does a splendid job of polyphonic accompaniment, like in Dowland’s “Come again.” On another disc, Deller sings the same song with just Dupré, and I’ll be damned if I can state a preference. They’re both wondrous. Bear in mind that many of these recordings are over fifty years old. Sometimes Deller’s singing is shackled to the acoustics of some echoey church; other times the sonics are presented in an ascetic mono. Yet most of the time, the sound is perfectly acceptable. There are so many melancholy stories in these old songs, like “Annie Laurie” and “O Who’s Going to Shoe Your Pretty Little Foot,” “Geordie,” “Black is the Color,” and “Barbara Allen.” (Now I know where Joan Baez got many of her early folk songs!) Yet try spending a whole evening listening to them all. You’ll run out of tissues. The set comes with a CD-ROM that lists the lyrics of each song, along with the track listings, and includes splendid notes written by the original annotators like Sidney Finkelstein. [Yes, that’s a good way to avoid printing up note booklets but also not sending collectors to the Net to download needed materials…Ed.]
— Peter Bates