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William BYRD (1539Ė1623)
Anthems, Motets and Services
Psallite Domino (Gradualia 1607); Ne irascaris (Cantiones Sacrae 1589); Latentur caeli (Cantiones Sacrae 1589); Senex puerum portaba (Gradualia 1605); Sing joyfully; Non vos Relinquam (Gradualia 1607); Vigilate (Cantiones Sacrae 1589); Justorum animae (Gradualia 1605); Haec dies (Cantiones Sacrae 1591); Teach me, O Lord; Rorate coeli (Gradualia 1605); Ave verum corpus (Gradualia 1605); Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis (Second Service); Exsurge Domine (Cantiones Sacrae 1591); Sacerdotes Domini (Gradualia 1607); Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis (Short Service); Laudibus in Sanctis (Cantiones Sacrae 1591)
Peter Dyke (Organ)
Hereford Cathedral Choir/Geraint Bowen
Recorded 11-13 January 2005, Hereford Cathedral

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By the time Byrd came to publish his collections of motets, Cantiones Sacrae, in 1589 and 1591 both he and his family were under investigation by the authorities for being Roman Catholics. Though Byrd himself seems to have had some degree of immunity, courtesy of Queen Elizabeth herself, this did not stop his family being harassed.

It is all the more remarkable then, that he published two substantial volumes of Latin motets. Few of the motets set liturgical texts so Byrd can hardly have intended them for be used in church, even though the Chapel Royal did still occasionally sing Latin motets. Educated Protestant families who bought these volumes probably used them as a sort of vocal chamber music, singing these substantial pieces in their own home. After all, though Latin was no longer used in the Church of England it was still learned by educated men.

But the motets had another, more secret purpose. The texts can all be read as having references to captivity and confinement. One of the most political Ne irascaris refers to Zion being a wilderness and Jerusalem a desolation; Byrd highlights this with homophonic chords. Ironically the motet is also one of his most affecting. Even a joyful motet like Laetentur coeli can be read as political with its repetition of Ďhe shall take pity on his afflicted peopleí. It was using these coded texts that Byrd was able to send a message of support to his fellow recusants.

In the 1590s Byrd retired to the estates of Roman Catholic peer Lord Petre and from there he published his remarkable trio of mass settings. These were followed by another, greater work, the Gradualia; nothing less than a complete setting of the propers (texts particular to a certain day or season) for the mass; the first such major undertaking since the Choralis Constantius of Heinrich Isaac. Quite how many of these lovely motets were used in actual services is difficult to assess as we have few recorded descriptions of recusant masses, though there is at least one description of Byrd playing the organ at a Roman Catholic mass.

Though motets from the Gradualia include some of Byrdís finest work, like Ave Verum Corpus and Senex puerum, they are, by and large, short and rather difficult to programme. For their new recital the choir of Hereford Cathedral under their director, Geraint Bowen, have produced a well balance programme which mixes the longer motets from Cantiones Sacrae with motets from the Gradualia and also English motets and two pairs of Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis settings. The result, which might have been a little indigestible, works well as a programme thanks to Byrdís genius and the fact that he was able to create miracles out of small as well as large things.

The choir seem most at home in the English items, perhaps because these, such as the beautifully turned Sing Joyfully, are part of their regular repertoire. The Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis settings are nicely done, but Iím afraid that I did have my doubts about the vocal quality of some of the soloists.

This is where I am going to have to admit that I was rather disappointed with this disc. However much I might appreciate the programme itself, I felt that on few of these items did the choir display itself in the very best light. Those items where the choir shone were the quiet, well-blended ones such as Ave verum corpus and Justorum animae, but elsewhere small problems seemed to recur. One is the issue of blend; too often I found individual voices standing out from the adult men. For example there is a passage in Ne irascaris where one of the tenors is alarmingly prominent, and similarly one of the altos in Laetentur caeli. Elsewhere there were more general blend problems, issues of poor vocal tone quality and hints of strain in the upper alto line (in Non vos relinquam). Against a number of the motets my notes also refer to general issues of untidiness, particularly in the faster sections.

None of these problems is major, but their recurrence in so many of the motets is rather distressing. I did wonder why it happened. It might be that the choir was having an off day, after all we are talking about trying to fit in recording sessions around the rather taxing daily schedule of a cathedral choir. With a choir of this size (only three altos, three tenors and three basses) finding time to polish material for recording must be difficult.

But another possible problem might be with the recording itself. Was the choir recorded too closely for comfort, allowing us to hear more of the vocal processes than we would do if we were seated in Hereford Cathedral.

There are good things on the disc, but few items really stand out. A recording such as this is a great disappointment because you know that it does not reflect the abilities of a fine choir when they are heard live; I just hope that Hereford are able to issue a disc which more accurately reflects their abilities.

Robert Hugill



Robert Hugillís blog

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