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William Byrd (1543-1623)
Music for a Hidden Chapel (from Gradualia, 1607)
Mass for 5 voices In Tempore Paschali (In Paschal Time) [18:18]
Motet for 3 voices: Regina cæli [6:41] 
Mass for 5 voices In Assumptione Beatæ Mariæ Virginis (on the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary) [16:49] 
Antiphon for 4 voices Ave Regina cælorum [4:31]
Antiphon for 4 voices Salve Regina [5:00]
Chanticleer (Louis Botto, Johnson Flucker, Joseph Jennings, Steven Rickards (counter-tenors); Mark Daniel, Neal Rogers, Bruce Sellers (tenors); Michael Noland, Mitchell Sandler, (baritones); Kevin Freemen, Paul Guttry, Mark Keller (basses))/Joseph Jennings.
rec. 1998. DDD.
Harmonia Mundi Classical Express HCX395 5182 [51:58]
Experience Classicsonline

The release of the first and second batches of Harmonia Mundi’s new mid-price Gold series – see Rob Barnett’s overview of the first batch – serves to remind me that there are even greater bargains to be found in their back catalogue, much of it in the super-budget Classical Express series, from which I have singled out this recording which I specially recommend and one of Corelli’s Concerti Grossi, Op.6, the review of which will follow soon.
 
Those who saw The Sixteen’s series of four programmes entitled Sacred Music on BBC4 will know that the music of William Byrd had both a public and a private aspect.  For the Chapel Royal he composed music which most successfully adapted the pre-reformation polyphonic style for the Anglican rite but his three Masses, the Cantiones Sacræ and the Gradualia could only have been intended for private celebration of the Roman rite.  Such worship was proscribed, very strictly so after the papal bull Regnans in excelsis, releasing Roman Catholics from allegiance to Elizabeth, and the Spanish Armada had made all followers of the older rite potential traitors.  Some of the Eastertide music on this recording could have found a place at the Chapel Royal as anthems, but the music for the Assumption provides for a feast no longer celebrated in the Book of Common Prayer and the Marian pieces were replaced by works more in accord with reformed sentiment at the end of Mattins and Evensongs ‘in Quires and places where they sing’.
 
The title Music for a Hidden Chapel is, therefore, appropriate, the chapel in question probably that of the Petre family at Ingatestone in Essex.  Celebrations there would have to have been fairly low-key events, without the ceremony which would have attended performances of Byrd’s Great Service and Second Service at the Chapel Royal or some great cathedral, though the three well-known Masses for three, four and five voices, probably also written for Ingatestone, can be made to sound well when sung by a cathedral choir, as on the Christ Church, Oxford, recordings for Nimbus which I reviewed recently. 
 
Christ Church choir intersperse their performances of those masses with music from the Gradualia; since writing that review I have been listening to these recordings again and I now feel that the items from Gradualia come over less well in performances of that scale.  I have also been listening quite frequently to this Chanticleer recording – I mentioned it briefly in the Nimbus review – and have been feeling more and more that Chanticleer, a group of twelve singers, offer just the right proportion for this music.  And what wonderful music it is, complete 5-part settings of the propers for the principal Mass of Easter Day and that for the Assumption, together with three Marian antiphons.
 
I might have preferred to have heard the settings of the Mass propers in tandem with one of the three Byrd Masses.  You could, of course, rip the relevant tracks and The Tallis Scholars’ recording of the Masses (best obtained on the 2-for-1 set CDGIM208) and create your own programme, but that would be very fussy and I haven’t tried doing it, even though I already have all the relevant tracks on the iTunes jukebox.
 
The recording, too, is excellent.  My only grumble concerns the very unattractive covers of all these Classical Express CDs: Harmonia Mundi had a very attractive cover for their original issue of this recording; surely it would have cost little extra to have reprinted this with the new catalogue number.  If you want this recording with a more attractive cover, it is also available as part of a 3-CD set of English Church Music on HMX290 7454.56.  For better artwork still, enclosing equally fine performances of music from the Gradualia, go for Hyperion Helios budget-price CDH55047, William Byrd Choir/Bruno Turner – no overlap with the HM CD – though the music sounds more disjointed there, since no attempt is made to link individual pieces.
 
All these Classical Express recordings are available as downloads from eMusic in very acceptable mp3 sound but, whereas the Byrd is good value – five tracks for a total of £1.20 on the 50-track-per month tariff) some other recordings in the series are not.  A recording of Corelli’s Concerti Grossi, Op.6, for example, with 26 tracks on the first disc and 33 on the second, works out much more expensive than iTunes’ charge of £4.74 per CD or the £5 or so each for which the CDs in this series can be purchased in the UK.
 
The moral is that, while it’s worthwhile to download the Byrd, you’d be better to save yourself the trouble with the Corelli and buy the CDs.  The same is true of Hyperion Helios mp3s on iTunes – don’t dream of downloading CDH55047 for £7.99, iTunes’ standard price for full-price and bargain-price Hyperions, when you can buy the CD for around a fiver in the UK.
 
You don’t get any notes if you download any of these recordings, though Harmonia Mundi offer the texts of the Byrd on their website – you really will need these texts.  Whichever way you obtain it, this CD is well worth its modest cost.  It would make an excellent supplement to any collection which already contained the three- four- and five-part Masses.
 
Those who wish to pursue the ‘hidden’ Byrd further could do much worse than with a 1997 Chandos recording entitled The Caged Byrd – music for voices, viola & harpsichord from a time of persecution, Volume 2 (CHAN0609, I Fagiolini and Sophie Yates – available on CD or as a download, as a 192k mp3 or in lossless format, from Chandos’s theclassicalshop.net).  The programme ranges from a setting of the English words Rejoice unto the Lord, probably sung to Queen Elizabeth in 1586, to Byrd’s setting of the bitter but ultimately hopeful poem Why do I use my paper, inke and penne, on the death of the Jesuit martyr Edmund Campion.  This and the adaptation of The noble famous Queen to refer to the execution of Mary Queen of Scots, also included, represents the closest that Byrd and those in whose company he moved at Ingatestone came to sedition. 
 
The Chandos recording also includes two works from the interchange between Byrd and continental composers in which the words of Psalm 137 (Vulgate 136) By the waters of Babylon become a coded symbol of the persecuted Roman Catholic minority.  Philippe de Monte set the opening of the psalm and Byrd replied tellingly with the section ‘How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?’  This exchange of motets in paired settings is more fully documented on a Classics for Pleasure CD (5 86048 2) but the small-scale performances on the Chandos recording are more to the point than those by King’s College Choir under David Willcocks on that CFP recording.  The Chandos singing is a trifle unvaried by comparison with that of Chanticleer on the Harmonia Mundi recording, but probably reflects accurately the kind of performance which Byrd would have heard. 
 
A similar small-scale collection on Naxos is more vigorously performed by Red Byrd and the Rose Consort (8.550604) but does not concentrate, as the Chandos does, on the ‘hidden’ music of Byrd the recusant.
 
Brian Wilson
 
 


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