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William BYRD (1539/40-1623)
Second Service & Consort Anthems
Arise, O Lord [3:18] 3,5; O God, that guides the cheerful sun [5:40]1,4,5; Alack, when  look back [5:33] 2,4,5; In nomine a 5, No; 2 [2:31] 4; Second Service: Magnificat [3:58] 1,4,5; Fantasia in D minor [4:51] 3; Second Service: Nunc dimittis [2:11]1,4,5; In nominee a 5, No; 4 [2:48] 4; Blessed is he that fears the Lord [5:13]2,4; Thou God that guid’st [3:46] 1,4,5; O Lord, make thy servant Elizabeth [2:49] 3,5; Fantasia in A minor [7:15] 3; Lord in thy wrath [3:36]2,4; In nomine a 5, No; 5 [2:44]4; Have mercy upon me, O God [4:02] 1,4,5; Why do I use my paper, ink and pen [7:09]2,4; Prevent us, O Lord [2:35] 3,5;
1Stefan Roberts (treble); 2Rogers Covey-Crump (tenor); 3Ryan Leonard (organ);
4Fretwork; 5The Choir of Magdalen College, Oxford/Bill Ives.
rec. Magdalen College Chapel, Oxford, March, July 2006. DDD
Booklet includes sung texts and translations in French and German.
HARMONIA MUNDI USA HMU907440 [71:05]

 


This CD begins with the full anthem Arise, O Lord (tr. 1) which has a first part of complaining then forlorn character, with all vocal parts transfixed in turn in imitation at ‘and forgettest our misery and trouble’, but you appreciate Magdalen College Choir’s incisive top line and well balanced lower voices. The second part, ‘Help us, O God’ (1:44) has the more satisfying contrast of chordal pleas, ‘Help us’, ‘O deliver us’, with freer contrapuntal writing evoking God’s glory and mercy, all smoothly and humbly presented here. This is a welcome first recording. More familiar full anthems follow. O Lord, make thy servant Elizabeth (tr. 11) is given formality yet also earnest progression by Bill Ives, quietening slightly at ‘but prevent her’ before a series of ardent entries of the different vocal parts for ‘and give her a long life’ (from 1:27), a cumulative expression of goodwill echoing round the chapel like a peal of bells before a pleasingly balanced and resonating Amen. The Tallis Scholars/Peter Phillips 1986 recording (Gimell CDGIM 208) is more euphonious but, with fewer voices, has less feel of a praying community and less edge. Prevent us, O Lord (tr. 17) contrasts smooth display of homophony, as at the outset, with density of counterpoint which for instance makes the echoing entries of ‘with thy continual help’ from 0:29 a significant mantra. Here Ives shows both dignity and expressively purposeful progression.

O God, that guides the cheerful sun (tr. 2) is a very different Byrd, an assured song and chorus of praise luxuriating in the regal shine of Fretwork’s consort of viols, one part of which is a descant above Stefan Roberts’ bright, well focussed solo. The second half of the stanza (0:55) is more rhythmically excited vocally, the chorus still more so as a host of trebles take up that descant line, but delivered here with a quiet confidence. The whole is topped with a downy, ethereal Amen, beautifully balanced. The countertenor Robin Blaze recorded this piece with Concordia in 2003 (Hyperion CDA 67397), the timing 5:59 against Roberts’ 5:40. Blaze has more smile in his voice and lighter projection. Roberts is smoother, with fuller tone while Fretwork show even more rhythmic bounce than Concordia. Permissibly, Blaze continues alone to sing his part in the chorus with one viol above and four below him but the use of vocal chorus, of which Magdalen Choir’s here is the first recording, is more striking.

Alack, when I look back (tr. 3) finds viols in more dignified mode as Rogers Covey-Crump’s voice of experience and feeling repentantly recalls ‘in youth I wanted grace’, but he has it now and the flowing tempo contributes. The choir repeats the last line of every stanza, at first briefly, then more elaborately for the prayer to the Good Lord (1:52) which concludes every section, in the gracious countertenor decoration of which you might just fancy echoes of a misspent youth. Parts for viols have been constructed by David Skinner from the organ score for this first recording, as is also the case with Thou God that guid’st (tr. 10), another first recording and similarly structured piece where Stefan Roberts is the soloist. There are subtle variations to all the choral repetitions here, a livelier third verse section (2:02) and the introduction of a second treble soloist, a freshly piping Nicholas Doig, before a balmy closing Amen.

Some tracks feature viols alone, the first being the second In nomine for 5 viols (tr. 4). This begins in gentle melancholy but a more hopeful leaping figure enters at 1:17 and the final motif from 1:47 looks forward positively. Fretwork’s performance has both a rich density and natural flow. With the fourth In nomine (tr. 8) comes gently distilled reflection of a happier cast because its opening and recurring descending motif is balanced by rising material in the top line which takes on more of a leaping character from 1:13 and even more dance like flurries of rising semiquavers from 2:17. The fifth In nomine (tr. 14) begins with mildly flowing descents, followed by ascents from 0:38, a motif headed by repeated notes from 1:09 and livelier rhythms altogether from 1:40 increasing to a festive, energetic closing climax in the top line. Fretwork’s 1989 recording (Virgin 5 45031 2) is sprightlier and defter, timing at 2:32 against 2:44, but the later account has a more inward quality to its opening and more internal contrast as it gets livelier. It’s fine ensemble playing: smooth, clear and of an easy disposition.

For Byrd the Second Service is a work of relative simplicity and terseness yet finely crafted. The Magnificat (tr. 5) begins in sober witness, the viols adding to this impression. But ‘He hath shewed strength with his arm’ (1:26) is livelier, pitting the trebles against the two countertenor, one tenor and one bass parts, steadily and swiftly rising to a climax. It needs tight ensemble to bring this off as vividly as here. Bill Ives also brings a swing to the similarly satisfyingly rising closing Gloria while the gentle flowering of the lower parts in the Amen typifies the work’s inner strength. Again parts for viols have been constructed from the organ score. The Nunc dimittis (tr. 7) is suitably quieter yet finds the full choir offering a comfortably sunny picture of ‘salvation’ and verse soloists a delicately pinpointed ‘light’ and ‘glory’ before Ives brings more zest to match the rhythmically freer Gloria with madrigalian touches.

From Byrd’s work for solo organ comes the Fantasia in D minor (tr. 6). Ryan Leonard makes clear the appearances of its opening boldly assertive motif. The second section (1:55) is like a formal dance with Leonard smoothly observing the ornamentation while not allowing it to obscure the line of the music. But the third section (2:50) is I feel introduced a little brusquely and as the rhythms grow faster grows over precipitous, though the closing cascades of semiquavers from 4:15 are exciting. I compared the 1991 recording by Davitt Moroney (Hyperion CDA 66551/7). He uses a more powerful organ in a more reverberant acoustic like that of Lincoln Cathedral where Byrd was organist. The effect is more imposing with more spaciousness, taking 5:14 against Leonard’s 4:51, beginning the third section with a striking change of mood, yet still able to make the close dazzle. Later from Leonard on this CD comes the Fantasia in A minor (tr. 12) which is of a more free flowing nature. Leonard gives it an improvisatory feel, for instance in his delicate semiquaver flurries at the end of the opening section. The second section (2:53) is suddenly more sprightly and urgent, the third (4:41) vaults forward still more, Leonard perhaps sacrificing a little clarity for spontaneity. The final section (5:50) turns into a closing sprint of running quavers then semiquavers. Leonard is more than equal to this virtuosity.

The consort song for voice and 4 viols, Blessed is he that fears the Lord (tr. 9) is a picture of peace and plenty presented by Covey-Crump and Fretwork as a clear and comely progress. Three of its five verses are sung, enough to indicate its cumulating comfort of focus on righteousness and its rewards. The one previous recording, by countertenor Russell Oberlin, In Nomine Players/Denis Stevens (Lyrichord LEMS 8014), originally issued in 1958, is only of the first verse and is in comparison too jerkily and forcefully projected. Covey-Crump’s high tenor is more crisply defined. In the same scoring is Lord in thy wrath (tr. 13). Covey-Crump fully catches Byrd’s engaging candour in its simplicity of confession and Fretwork provide an equally transparent instrumental texture whose rhythmic activity and gentle melodic echoes make the whole a positive experience, a plea for mercy with confidence that it will come. This is sometimes gained more from the music than the text. Only three of the five verses are performed here and the third verse has the most downbeat ending.

Why do I use my paper, ink and pen? (tr. 16) is a more elaborate consort song with Covey-Crump clearly displaying the low lying opening, higher tessitura refrain with livelier contributions from Fretwork and a tailpiece. There’s a judicious combination of clarity and sober consideration from the singer and rhythmic dexterity and melodic resonance from the viols. Three verses are sung, the orthodox generalized setting as printed in the Byrd Edition. In their 1996 recording I Fagiolini with Concordia (Chandos CHAN 0609) present the first verse then two different ones making graphic reference to the execution of Edmund Campion. The use of Elizabethan pronunciation gives their performance less clarity but adds to the greater emphasis on drama.

Have mercy upon me, O God (tr. 15) is a setting for soloist, chorus and consort of viols. Its opening is graced by the plangent tone of Stefan Roberts’ treble solo and the treble headed chorus which repeats every line of the soloist. The aching intensity increases as the solo part goes higher, for instance at ‘wipe away mine offences’ (1:46) which the chorus echoes at a more restrained lower pitch, but in the final chorus at ‘and purge me from my sins’ (3:20) they reinforce and climax at higher pitch. At a timing of 4:02 this is a more penitential and reflective account than that by Red Byrd and the Rose Consort (Naxos 8.550604) recorded in 1992 which takes 3:15.

The construction of parts for viol consort in some pieces, noted above, is controversial. There’s no evidence viols were used in liturgical performances, though Byrd did write for them in consort songs for the domestic environment; but given that O God that guides the cheerful sun and Have mercy upon me, O God are authentic works for soloist, viols and chorus, it’s understandable this CD extends this practice. What’s great about it is its range, wider than the title, the number of first recordings, quality of the performances and most of all the revelation that this is music of feeling.

 Michael Greenhalgh 

 

 

 


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