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William BYRD (1539/40-1623)
The Tallis Scholars sing William Byrd
CD1
Mass for five voices [22:27]
Mass for four voices [22:06]
Mass for three voices [17:51]
Ave verum corpus [4:10]
Infelix ego [12:20]
CD2
Vigilate [4:52]#
Tristitia et anxietas [10:06]#
Ne irascaris, Domine [8:06]#
Prevent us, O Lord [2:48]#
The Great Service [44:14]*
O Lord, make thy servant Elizabeth [2:52]*
O God, the proud are risen [3:01]*
Sing joyfully unto God [2:59]*
The Tallis Scholars/Peter Phillips
rec. Merton College Chapel, Oxford, September 1983 (CD1), Church of St John at Hackney, June 1986*, Tewkesbury Abbey, September 2002 #. DDD
Booklet includes sung texts and translations in English of the Latin texts and French and German of all texts.
GIMELL CDGIM208 [79:05 + 79:03]



Returning to these performances I was struck by their freshness and fluency. There are just two voices per part. In the Mass for three voices the Kyrie’s structure and span are admirably clear. The tone is smiling but not over emotive. The Gloria is lively, displaying clarity of line and enunciation and also a certain objectivity. ‘Domine Deus’, beginning here as a tenor solo (tr. 12 1:43) is the first verse section where solo voices are used, emphasising a more personal prayer and securing an effective contrast when all voices return at ‘Quoniam tu solus sanctus’. And there’s no lack of drama when the parts rise in turn as they affirm ‘tu solus altissimus’, ‘you alone are the most high’, which generates a power boost for a swinging closing section ‘cum sancto Spiritu’. With few voices this can be vigorous without seeming over theatrical.
 
I compared the 1999 recording by The Cardinall’s Musick/Andrew Carwood (ASV Gaudeamus CDGAU 206). Here are the comparative timings:
Timings
Kyrie
Gloria
Credo
Sanctus & B
Agnus D 
Total
Phillips
0:35
4:33
6:39
2:48
3:14
17:51
Carwood
0:39
4:34
7:03
2:50
3:02
18:08

Carwood also uses two voices per part but soprano, counter-tenor and tenor, rather than Phillips’ countertenor, tenor and bass, to more luminous effect in the Kyrie. In the Carwood Gloria there’s more attention to the articulation of the text, for example a sense of flowering at ‘rex caelestis’ where Phillips places more emphasis on rhythm and propulsion. Phillips makes more marked tempo contrasts, so ‘Domine Deus’ is slower and more adoring after which there’s a gradual acceleration to the close.
 
Phillips’ Credo is a sturdy affirmation with constant echoing by one part of another. Notable is the rapt quality of solo voices used for ‘Et incarnatus est’ (tr. 13 2:03) without any slackening of tempo. The simplicity of the statement ‘Crucifixus’ in the bass, echoed in turn by countertenor and tenor, is moving before the full chorus floods in jubilantly at ‘Et resurrexit’. Carwood’s opening is a brighter affirmation of more even flow, with a serene ‘Et incarnatus’ and reverent gaze to the Crucifixus. Phillips’ Sanctus, a little slower, is like a contemplative peal of bells with something of devotion about it, its ‘Osanna in excelsis’ then faster, excited and exultant as the mood changes from prayer to praise. The Benedictus is then quieter but serene, as is the opening of the Agnus Dei, the third plea of which, for the first time using all three parts at the same time (tr. 15 1:38), is suddenly infused with extraordinary tenderness as the sound becomes more dense to bring fervour to the closing ‘dona nobis pacem’. Carwood’s Sanctus, seamlessly projected, is like a flower opening out, his Agnus Dei smooth and grateful in its flow, while its ‘dona nobis pacem’ has a willing conviction in its sudden greater momentum where Phillips is more even in tempo yet very expressive in plea. Either performance will satisfy.
 
In Phillips’ Kyrie of the Mass for four voices you notice how a second soprano line makes the texture more elaborate and with this comes a broadening of structure and heightened sense of drama. In this Gloria there’s a lilting approach to the early alternation of the two upper and lower parts. The structure is swiftly and lucidly presented as a positive witness. Contrasts are made through dynamics rather than numbers of singers. In this Credo the ‘Crucifixus’ (3:10) is a wan witness, marked and concentrated because a rare section of homophony before the firm rising scale of ‘Et resurrexit’ (3:34) and still more marked ascent and rhythm of ‘Et ascendit in caelum’ (3:55) becoming heady and exultant. This Sanctus, a little slower, is of balmy adoration and poised phrasing, smooth in line until the excitement of the Osannas. The three pleas of the Agnus Dei grow more poignant as two parts become three and then four. The morose harmonies of ‘dona nobis pacem’ look forlornly for hope in their relentless repetition.
 
In the Mass for five voices there’s a second tenor part. The greater elaboration this provides is used to make more ecstatic passages for all parts and climaxes. The accumulation in the Kyrie (tr. 1) is more gradual still and the sections contain more reflection in their wider spans. In the Gloria (tr. 2) the first acclamation involving all voices at ‘Laudamus te’ is flamboyant  while ‘Gratias agimus tibi’ has an attractively sunny assurance with a lilting character. In the Credo there’s an assured paciness. ‘Et incarnatus est’ steals smoothly on the scene but ‘Crucifixus’ is a touch more solemn acknowledgement of fact. ‘Et resurrexit’ is sturdier, ‘Et ascendit in caelum’ athletic, after which there seems to come a flood of light of inner conviction and strength. Here is the most sonorous Sanctus of beacons of worship. The Benedictus, however, has a more ethereal, privately contemplative opening, as does the Agnus Dei, whose first plea is scored for three parts, second for four and third for five. Phillips brings to the early pleas a moving clarity and tenderness. The third becomes more dramatic before falling away, smoothly and balmily for ‘dona nobis pacem’. I was surprised by the roseate beauty of so much of this performance.
 
Phillips brings his customary flowing line to Ave verum corpus (tr. 16) yet the intensity of the harmonies and the admirable clarity of the part writing give it plenty of feeling. The refrain ‘O dulcis’ is repeated softer (2:38) to more inward, plangent effect. Infelix ego  (tr. 17) in six vocal parts includes notable use of a descant soprano top line. Phillips’ approach is direct, firmly expressive and kinetic. The first part ends with the recognition of the confessing sinner being an outrage, ‘scandalum fui’ (from 3:10) in cascading descents. The closing prayer, ‘Miserere mei’ (9:44) begins in contrite low register before an ethereal higher repeat and has a welcome sense of repose as the earnest pace of Phillips’ performance has at last eased.
 
CD2 begins with Vigilate. Here is singing of urgency and edge in the vigorous depiction of cockcrow, ‘an gallicantu’ (tr. 1 from 1:26) and the title keyword, ‘Keep watch’, racily declaimed in energetic vocal runs by all parts to close. Tristitia et anxietas (tr. 2) offers the desolation of ‘Vae mihi quia peccavi’ (4:35), ‘Woe is me for I have sinned’, the emphasis on that sin becoming more intense and agitated (from 5:19). The closing section features a smoother ‘et Miserere mei’ (8:39), ‘and have pity on me’ which still reaches an earnest climax before it seems to resolve, comforted.
 
Ne irascaris, Domine (tr. 3), having established florid counterpoint, cuts across and contrasts this with square chords at ‘Ecce’ (1:35), ‘Behold’, a strong plea here, almost a demand. But what you remember is the second part (3:48), in particular the sad beauty of ‘facta est deserta’ (4:29), ‘has been left deserted’. The chords return for ‘Sion deserta’ (5:20) first in the upper, then lower voices, the effect that of the witness of the whole earth to a still background now all counterpoint has ceased. It soon returns for the flowing imitation of ‘Jerusalem’ (5:52), a passage which has all the beauty of recollection of happier times before the irony of the lovely flow in this account of the final imitation between the parts at ‘desolata est’ (6:23).
 
The Tallis Scholars sing The Great Service unaccompanied, beautifully and beguilingly. From the opening of the Venite (tr. 5) there’s a comely assurance, smoothness and clarity in the myriad antiphonal effects. But there’s very little contrast between that opening verse section for solo voices in four parts and the full one at 0:24 for all voices of the two five part choirs, because with only twelve singers altogether there’s no scope for distinctions of density as are to be had from the 36 voices of Westminster Abbey Choir/James O’Donnell in their 2005 recording (Hyperion CDA 67533) with organ accompaniment, as most likely originally. But Phillips’ pure toned, vibrato free sopranos, if a touch creamier, are arguably closer to the more mature treble voices Byrd had available than today when boys’ voices break earlier, though I like the Westminster boys’ astringent piping. Here are the comparative timings:
Timings
Venite
Te Deum
Benedictus
Creed
Magnificat
Nunc dimit.
Total
Phillips
5:16
9:32
9:23
5:28
9:12
5:20
44:14
O’Donnell
5:02
8:34
8:40
5:45
9:25
4:54
42:20

O’Donnell’s full sections are lustier. This makes for a more dramatic and contrasted revelation of the texts, though there’s less presence and beauty to individual voices in the verse sections than displayed by Phillips. Phillips’ Te Deum (tr. 6) has a more measured, quiet reverence in comparison with O’Donnell’s angels who cry aloud with more gusto. Phillips’ final section, ‘O Lord in thee have I trusted’ (8:00) is more reflectively prayerful where O’Donnell is firmer, almost admonishing. The Benedictus (tr. 7) gets its serenely contemplative strength from recurring motifs, most memorably in a higher tessitura passage for the sunny picture of ‘all the days of our life’ (4:26). The overall effect is extraordinarily ethereal while Phillips’ greater measure than O’Donnell allows you to consider the text more.
 
Without a mention in the booklet Phillips omits the Kyrie. This is one response in 5 parts to nine of the Ten Commandments intoned by a priest and then a final response which, though devout, would be tedious in a recording. O’Donnell just performs the two responses which seems to me a fair compromise as they are part of Byrd’s setting. They are also chaste, contrite, prayerful and contain the hope of serenity which pervades the whole. This makes the total timing of his complete Great Service 43:21. O’Donnell’s Creed with more voices and contrast has more immediacy and a style of positive declaration. Phillips is more contemplative, untroubled, inward with a focus on clarity. For example, the verse ‘And was incarnate by the Holy Ghost’ (tr. 8 1:36) has a smoothness and sanctity comparable to that section in the Masses while ‘And was crucified’ (2:04) is a passage of sorrowing reflection. 
 
The Magnificat (tr. 9) begins with four solo voices, quickly followed by the first appearance of the full forces for the repetition of ‘And my spir’t rejoiceth’ (0:17) to joyous effect though O’Donnell is lustier. Phillips gets a blithely skipping quality for ‘all generations shall call me blessed’ (1:07) typical of the madrigalian lightness of articulation he achieves throughout, though O’Donnell finds more uninhibited rhythmic excitement. ‘And his mercy is on that that fear him’ (2:22) is for all voices but Phillips presents it effectively in sotto voce manner, thus emphasising the scale of that mercy and creating a pleasing foil for the more lively, madrigalian imitation of ‘throughout all generations ‘ (2:39). O’Donnell’s Nunc Dimittis has a more intimate and personal verse opening with the full ‘For mine eyes’ a gleeful witness. The ‘and to be the glory’ entries are small yet still bright beacons before a sinewy full attack for the closing Gloria’s resilient affirmation. Phillips is slower, softer, all serene, clean phrasing shaped with artistry, beautiful tone and the whole has a lambent glow with the Gloria just a touch firmer.
 
O Lord, make thy servant Elizabeth  (tr. 11) under a chordal veneer enjoys deft touches of dense counterpoint, especially the imitative entries in the parts in turn at ‘And give her a long life’ (from 1:24). Phillips’ use of just 10 voices makes it sunnily personal. Its beautifully undulating Amen is given a real lilt. Prevent us, O Lord (tr. 4) has a similar technique but the counterpoint is more taut, for example at ‘And further us with thy continual help’ (0:29) where the entries display a tight continuity. O God, the proud are risen (tr.12) is more dramatic. Its opening is protesting declamation, relatively civilized in this performance. Almost soporific slow rhythms illustrate ‘slow to anger’ (1:35) before the springing energy of affirmation, no longer protest, at ‘And great in kindness’ (2:00) which itself becalms to effect a satisfying close. Sing joyfully (tr. 13) has especially robust counterpoint. The imitative entries at ‘Sing loud’ (0:21) crack into each other at close quarters. The antiphonal effects and firm cross accents at ‘Blow up the trumpet’ (1:04) here have a hearty relish. I miss the more piping trebles but sopranos make ‘the pleasant harp and the viol’ (0:50) more suave and the closing section, ‘For this is a statute’ (1:49) more tranquil.
 
Dates of these reissued recordings aren’t given but I’ve added them to the heading. Two CDs for the price of one full price are good value here. There are performances of the Great Service and anthems of more authentic and dramatic, fuller bodied forces but none more beautifully sung, cleanly phrased and finely balanced. These qualities also tellingly reveal the spirituality of the masses and poignancy of the Latin motets.
 
Michael Greenhalgh
 



 


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