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William BYRD (1539/40-1623)
O Lord, make they servant Elizabeth [3.01]
Matins: Venite [5.02]; Te Deum [8.34]; Benedictus [8.40]; Kyrie [1.01]; Creed [5.45]
Prevent us, O lord [2.33]
Voluntary for my Lady Nevell [4.04]
Evensong: How long shall mine enemies? [3.23]; Magnificat [9.25]; Nunc Dimittis [4.54]; Out of the Deep [5.26]
Fancy for my Lady Nevell [5.32]
Christ rising again from the dead [5.51]
Sing joyfully [3.00]
The Choir of Westminster Abbey/James O’Donnell
Robert Quinney (organ)
rec. Westminster Abbey, 25-27 January, 3-4 February 2005. DDD
HYPERION CDA 67533 [76.15]

The Great Service is one of the pinnacles of Byrd’s ever-exquisite craftsmanship. A Great Service was one of the three styles of canticle setting which developed in the reign of Elizabeth I, thankfully a monarch who liked music and was glad to see it reinstated in church services. Great Services had a number of soloists and were large-scale and musically complex, as opposed to the homophonic "short service" and the "verse service" with "verse" (solo) singers.

This disc reconstructs the service with the inclusion of some of Byrd’s better-known anthems and two glorious and innovative organ interludes, here expertly played by Robert Quinney, from My Lady Nevell’s Book.

The Great Service is a dramatic work in which Byrd makes full use of any available contrasts, setting high voice against low, soloists against choir, and the two sides of choir - the decani and cantoris - against each other (as in Short Services), and sometimes even getting them to represent different characters. In the Te Deum, for example, the decani play the Apostles while the cantoris sing as the martyrs. The Anthems are also wonderfully complex, as Byrd never uses any fewer than five voices. I particularly loved the word-painting in the Anthems – the rising motif on the word "rising" in Christ rising again from the dead - a beautiful anthem with its uplifting ending "restored to life" - and the depiction of the blasts of a trumpet on the words "Blow the trumpet in the new moon" in the final track on the disc, Sing Joyfully.

The performance impresses in that the choir sing with great clarity and confidence, easily equal to the complexity of the service. Yet at times I found the choristers just a little too nasal, and the singing a little heavy and plodding. It is a beautiful performance, but it does need more brightness and liveliness. There are two other versions of this work available - Kings College Cambridge on EMI or the Tallis Scholars on Gimell. I prefer the Kings College Cambridge version, with Stephen Cleobury conducting - the Tallis Scholars disc misses the point, I feel, with its omission of boys’ voices - but this makes a close second.

Em Marshall



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