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William BYRD (1543-1623)

‘Ave Verum Corpus’: Motets and Anthems of William Byrd
Sing Joyfully [2’18"]
Turn our captivity [4’38"]
Praise our Lord, all ye Gentiles [2’28"]
Emendemus in melius [4’08"]
Siderum Rector [2’50"]
Plorans plorabit [5’10"]
Vista, quaesumus Domine [4’08"]
Attollite portas [4’16"]
Laudibus in sanctis [5’20"]
Gaudeamus omnes [2’40"]
Ave verum Corpus [4’05"]
Veni, Sancte Spiritus [5’45"]
Christus resurgens [4’10"]
Solve iubente Deo [2’30"]
O magnum mysterium [5’42"]
Non vos relinquam [1’55"]
O quam suavis [4’48"]
Justorum anime [2’35"]
The Cambridge Singers directed by John Rutter
Recorded in the Great Hall of University College School, London, April 1989.
COLLEGIUM CSCD 507 [71’00]
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This is a straight reissue of a CD which originally appeared in 1990. Unlike several other labels Collegium have not chosen to downgrade the presentation upon reissuing the disc at medium price. The reissue retains the original very good notes by John Rutter and the full texts and translations. The only changes from the packaging of the original disc involve new cover artwork and the inclusion of a photograph showing Rutter and his singers recording in the Lady Chapel of Ely Cathedral (even though this recording was not made there!). From an A/B comparison of the original CD, which I have owned since its first release I could not detect any variances in the recorded sound. So, three cheers for Collegium in respect of presentation!

And three cheers, too, for the quality of the performances. In the thirteen years which have elapsed since this recording was made the performance of Byrd has moved on somewhat in that several specialist ensembles such as The Cardinall’s Musick have issued excellent CD recitals of music by Byrd and his contemporaries. However, this disc demonstrates conclusively that more generalist choirs can still provide excellent accounts of this sort of music provided that those choirs consist of first class musicians and that they are directed by equally first class conductors.

John Rutter contributes a detailed note in which he discusses some of the performance considerations behind the performance of this programme. I can imagine that some may take issue with certain of his ideas but to me they seem perfectly sensible and logical. In particular he has eschewed ‘authentic’ pronunciation, preferring that his choir sing Italianate Latin and modern English. This, and other decisions which he has taken seem logical if for no other reason than that non-specialist listener coming to this CD will encounter performances which sound similar to those which he or she will have heard in cathedrals and churches. In other words, Rutter’s ideas produce performances which will relate closely to the listening experiences of most people. He has clearly thought about the issues very carefully and, dare I say, from a composer’s perspective as well as that of a performer.

Having established his performance principles it is clear that he has gone on to train his 28-strong choir with scrupulous care. He writes "the guiding principle adopted has been to aim for textural clarity in complex passages while allowing a natural increase of vocal sonority in homophonic passages." To my ears, he and his singers have successfully achieved this aim.

The pieces gathered here are mainly taken from the Cantiones Sacrae collections of 1575 and 1591 and from the two volumes of Gradualia which Byrd published in 1605 and 1607. The exceptions are the three English items. Concise, informative notes about each individual piece assist the listener’s appreciation greatly and place each piece in its proper place in Byrd’s output.

As I indicated earlier the performances are from the top drawer. The more vigorous items such as Sing Joyfully (track 1) and Attollite Portas (track 8) are well done though some may feel that Praise our Lord, all ye Gentiles (track 3) is a little too smoothly sung. I would have thought that Solvente iubente Deo (track 14) could usefully have had a bit more bite.

However, the solemn chordal harmonies of Emendemus in melius (track 4) are well realised and Siderum Rector (track 5) is supple and flowing. Two of the best-known items, Ave verum Corpus (track 11) and the sublime O magnum mysterium (track 15) receive splendid performances while O quam suavis (track 17) is quite lovely. In fact, I feel that Rutter and his singers are perhaps best suited to the more introverted or reflective side of Byrd’s output. Perhaps it is no accident that such pieces predominate in this recital, culminating in Justorum animae (track 18) which brings the programme to an exquisite and eloquent close.

John Rutter himself cautions, sensibly I think, against listening to such a programme as this straight through, an experience which he likens to attending a complete performance of Bach’s ‘48’ ("worthwhile, but utterly different to the composer’s intentions", as he puts it). Probably such a consideration is one reason why the programme has been split into four sections of varying lengths. I think Rutter is right: this is a programme to dip into, all the better to marvel at the genius of William Byrd.

An excellent disc, then, containing a good selection of some of the finest a capella music written for the English church. The performances are consistently of the highest order and the recorded sound is good, though personally I would have welcomed just that little added ambience and resonance which might have been obtained in Rutter’s favourite recording location, the Lady Chapel at Ely Cathedral. Very well written and informative notes complete one’s pleasure in a fine release. Strongly recommended.

John Quinn


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