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William BYRD (1539/40-1623)
Cantiones Sacrae

Haec dies, no 21 (1591) [2:09]
Miserere mei, Deus, no. 13 (1591) [3:44]
Laetentur coeli, no. 16 (1589) [3:09]
Salve, Regina, no. 4 (1591) [8:27]
Laudibus in sanctis, no. 1 (1591) [5:18]
Ne irascaris, Domine, no. 12 (1589) [9:34]
In resurrectione tua, no. 10 (1589) [1:37]
Domine, non sum dignus, no. 15 (1591) [3:33]
Vigilate, no. 9 (1589) [4:18]
Domine, secundum multitudinem dolorum meum, no. 15 (1589) [3:29]
Domine, salva nos, no. 20 (1591) [4:18]
Cantate Domino, no. 18 (1591) [2:08]
Quis est homo, no. 2 (1591) [5:58]
O quam gloriosum est regnum, no. 13 (1589) [4:28]
Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge/Richard Marlow
rec. Chapel of Trinity College, Cambridge, 8-10 July 2001. DDD

This CD offers a selection from Byrd’s Sacred Songs, six motets from the sixteen published in 1589, eight from the 21 published in 1591. In the heading these are identified after their titles by their numbering in the original and modern editions.
Trinity College Choir is one of mixed voices and there’s contemporary evidence that Byrd’s Latin music was sung by such a combination. However, the Sacred Songs were published for domestic use in Catholic households, so it’s likely that usually smaller forces, even just one voice per part, performed them than the thirty singers pictured in this CD booklet photo.
The most memorable motet of the 1589 selection is Ne irascaris, Domine. This begins as a soft, contrite plea, ‘Be not angry any more, O Lord’, smoothly sung and phrased. Soon comes ‘Ecce, respice’ (tr. 10 1:52), an intent, aching call to attention which grows more urgent in this performance. It is then expanded to ‘populus tuus omnes nos’(2:52) with a feeling of pride and solidarity in this mantra like affirmation ‘we are all your people’ as the counterpoint grows in texture and sonority. The second part, ‘Civitas sancti tui’ (tr. 11) begins recalling the beauty of ‘the city of your holy place’ before the plain reporting of present reality, ‘facta est deserta’ (0:44), ‘is become a wilderness’. Now comes the human reaction, a lament ‘Sion deserta facta est’ (1:46) given out in homophony in turn by the upper four voice parts, then the lower four, an octave lower. Marlow presents this too with consistent smoothness. The desolation is all in Byrd’s scoring. ‘Jerusalem’ (2:21) is now specified in polyphony as a happy memory but the firm statement ‘desolata est’ (2:55) through repetition contains the starkness of gradual, painful acceptance, heartrending beauty of tone notwithstanding.
I compared this recording with the 1999 recording by The Cardinall’s Musick/Andrew Carwood (ASV Gaudeamus CDGAU309). Carwood uses only one voice per part which brings about a more personal, etched expressiveness and greater clarity of contrapuntal articulation. But there’s also a sufficiently ample sonority owing to the airy acoustic of Arundel Castle’s Fitzalan Chapel whereas that of Trinity College Chapel is smooth but more neutral. Carwood projects the piece more urgently, with a timing of 8:36 against Marlow’s 9:34. In the first part Carwood’s ‘populus tuus’ has a more downcast yearning pleading about it where Marlow shows more assurance. In the second part Carwood finds a relentless flow but a lighter, lilting recall of ‘Jerusalem’ before the overwhelming sadness and weariness of the repetitions of ‘desolata est’. Carwood achieves expressiveness through pace and clarity of melodic line and contrapuntal exchange rather than the dynamic contrasts that Marlow adds. Marlow opts for a more prayerful, mystical opening of weary contemplation, a dramatic crescendo for the second soprano ‘Ecce’ (tr. 10 2:20), a cowed, sotto voce ‘Sion deserta est’, a soft focus ‘Jerusalem’ at first and a variation of dynamic for ‘desolata est’ with sensitive tapering down (tr. 11 3:27) and then increase in anguish (4:03) before final softening.

But there are three motets of jubilation. In resurrectione tua (tr. 12) is notable for its Alleluias, a creamy first phase at 0:30 and extended series from 1:01, light and flexible from Marlow but with a positive culmination. Carwood here is more gutsy in rhythm but Marlow reveals more the grand architectural span. O quam gloriosum est regnum is Byrd’s vision of a choir of saints. Marlow takes it more pacily than Carwood, 4:28 against 5:00. This makes the opening a gleeful, beaming assurance. Thereafter you soak in the 2 soprano lines exchanging descants. Marlow gives you horizontal smoothness, Carwood’s lustier rejoicing emphasises vertical clarity. Laetentur coeli is also treated more pacily by Marlow, 3:09 against Carwood’s 3:42, creating a more athletic opening, snappy exultation (tr. 3 0:16) contrasted with smooth jubilation (0:28) and reflection on hope for the poor (1:00). The second part (tr. 4), at first confined to the upper 3 voices, is more pearly and rarefied. Marlow emphasises Byrd’s fluency. The outcome is both admirable and somewhat distancing. Carwood’s account blossoms more via more cutting edge, its close a serene blessing on the poor.
Domine, secundum multitudinem dolorum meum (tr. 15) is dramatically presented by Marlow as a changing focus: the laboured falling ‘dolorum’ (0:37), upward and uplifting ‘consolationes’ (1:46), light and dancing ‘laetificaverunt’ (2:32). Carwood concentrates more plainly on the intertwining imitation which achieves the illusion of a crowd of witnesses.  To Vigilate (tr. 14) Marlow brings a light opening, rejoicing in feathery counterpoint, gradually more admonitory as the voice parts increase. He consistently dramatizes by contrasts of dynamic, like the lusty first tenor entry on ‘sero’ (0:42) and soprano cry ‘vigilate’ (1:51). Carwood’s single voices create a more graphic picture of a cock crowing, the sudden arrival of the master and a coda of more sinewy strength where Marlow (3:28) relies on grand formality, but the student choir here more vividly conveys the slinking syncopated falling scale of ‘dormientes’ (2:33) showing the servants fast asleep, born perhaps from experience of lectures?
Turning to the 1591 collection, Laudibus in sanctis stands out. Marlow’s performance is sonorous and suave by turns as he weaves a continual tapestry of dynamic contrasts, eg. the loud-soft-loud tiering of ‘laeta chorea’ (tr. 9 0:22) and the bite, clarity and variation of the ‘cymbala’ entries from 0:47. But his Halleujah chorus is largely soft as is the focus of the assured coda. Carwood’s performance, this time on Hyperion (CDA67568) has more zest and sinew about it while his slightly slower tempo, 5:44 against Marlow’s 5:18, points the cross rhythms more.
Marlow’s recording of Quis est homo was the first ever, though Carwood’s was released first. Marlow’s faster tempo, 5:58 against Carwood’s 6:19, emphasises an atmosphere of serenity and positive ideas fluently promoted. For me Carwood’s less smoothly tapered, more directly and intently expressive manner better matches the didactic text. With Salve, Regina it’s Marlow’s slower tempo, 8:27 against Carwood’s 7:07, that I find more effective. The rising scales of ‘salve’ (tr. 5 0:44) have a touch of effortful yearning, explained by key motifs that Marlow allows to emerge from the gently sorrowing texture, ‘in hac lacrimarum valle’, ‘in this vale of tears’ (2:12), the address ‘advocata nostra’, ‘our advocate’ (2:52) and longing in the closing cry, ‘ad nos converte’, ‘turn to us’ (3:50) where Carwood’s is more of a despairing demand. Marlow’s second part (tr. 6) opens with a serene vision of Jesus and from 1:30 offers an extended, adoring appeal to Mary, beautifully focused, his finest performance.
The other five items on this CD, Carwood has yet to record, but four appear on the 1591 selection from New College Oxford Choir/Edward Higginbottom (CRD 3439) from 1986. Marlow’s Haec dies has eagerness and spring about its opening, a joyous ‘exultemus’ (tr. 1 0:38), frolicking ‘et laetemur’ (0:42) and supple Alleluias from 1:02 capable of both reflection and affirmation. The slower Higginbottom, 2:32 against Marlow’s 2:09, has clearer yet stiffer entries and a slow motion feel. In total contrast Marlow’s Miserere mei, Deus is contrite pleading, the gentle lingering of the elaboration in the soprano at ‘misericordium tuam’ (tr. 2 1:15) giving the impression of infinite mercy. The incisiveness of Higginbottom’s entries takes away something of the humility of the pleas and while the even tone of the sorrowful avowing of his close has dignity it isn’t as moving as Marlow’s more romantic dynamic contrast, a climax at ‘dele iniquitatem meam’ (2:47), falling away softly, ashamed, from 3:01. Domine, non sum dignus receives a much more measured performance from Marlow at 3:33 than Higginbottom’s 2:33. For Marlow this is a careful appeal of six voice parts unfolding elaborately with a soft, cajoling ‘sed tantum dic verbam’, ‘but say the word only’ (tr. 13 1:56), for the first time excitement at ‘et sanabitur’, ‘shall be healed’ (2:20), a motif whose note values are then doubled in length (2:52) to emphasise the power of faith. Higginbottom’s nervous energy lacks the breadth and underlying faith that illuminates Marlow’s performance. It’s a similar story with Domine, salva nos where Marlow’s more generously phrased performance, 4:18 against Higginbottom’s 3:18, creates humble pockets of folk imploring to be saved and a poignant picture (tr. 16 1:21) of drowning otherwise in repeated descending motifs. Higginbottom is contrapuntally lucid but emotively too disciplined.
Cantate Domino (tr. 17) is made a virtuoso display piece by Marlow perhaps overmuch, with a striking peal at 0:19 after a light opening and almost brutal very loud repeats of the soft phrases from 0:56. I can live more readily with the slightly slower, 2:23 against Marlow’s 2:08, 1993 Worcester Cathedral Choir/Donald Hunt (Griffin GCCD4053) which is lively and clear enough rhythmically and contrapuntally without Marlow’s touches of frenzy.
If you like Byrd motets well upholstered and tightly shaped, generous in dynamic contrasts, this CD will do nicely. If you prefer more rhythmic vibrancy and individual voice part expressiveness, go for Carwood.
Michael Greenhalgh


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