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William Byrd (1539/1543?-1623)
Mass for Three Voices (early 1590s) with the Propers for the Nativity

Introitus: Puer natus est nobis (Gradualia, 1607) [5:15]
Kyrie (Mass for Three Voices) [0:41]
Gloria (Mass for Three Voices) [4:49]
Gradualis: Viderunt omnes fines terrae; Dies sanctificatus (Gradualia, 1607) [3:19]
Credo (Mass for Three Voices) [7:31]
Offertorium: Tui sunt cúli (Gradualia, 1607) [1:20]
Sanctus; Benedictus (Mass for Three Voices) [2:47]
Communio: Viderunt omnes fines terrae (Gradualia, 1607) [1:16]
Agnus Dei (Mass for Three Voices) [3:40]
Antiphon: Hodie Christus Natus est [2:18]
Hymn: Christe redemptor omnium [3:55]
Antiphon: O admirabile Commertium [4:31]
Hymn: A solis ortus cardine [4:40]
Response: O magnum misterium [5:49]
Christ Church Cathedral Choir/Stephen Darlington
rec. Dorchester Abbey, Oxfordshire, England, 13-14 May 1991. DDD.
Booklet with notes in English, texts and translations.
Music edited by David Skinner and published by The Cardinallís Musick (edition), Headington, Oxford OX3 7LS

NIMBUS NI5302 [51:51]

William Byrd (1539/1543?-1623)

Mass for Four Voices (1592?) with the Propers for the Feast of Corpus Christi
Introitus: Cibavit eos (Gradualia, 1605) [3:41]
Kyrie (Mass for Four Voices) [2:04]
Gloria (Mass for Four Voices) [5:44]
Gradualis: Oculi omnium (Gradualia, 1605) [4:07]
Sequentia: Lauda Sion salvatorem (plainsong) [6:36]
Credo (Mass for Four Voices) [7:45]
Offertorium: Sacerdotes Domini (Gradualia, 1605) [1:44]
Sanctus; Benedictus (Mass for Four Voices) [3:49]
Communio: Quotiescunque manducabitis (Gradualia, 1605) [3:04]
Agnus Dei (Mass for Four Voices) [3:35]
Processional Hymn: Pange lingua gloriosi (Gradualia, 1605) [7:34]
Hymn to the Blessed Sacrament: Ave verum corpus (Gradualia, 1605) [4:16]
Hymn to the Blessed Sacrament: O salutaris hostia (Gradualia, 1605) [2:15]
Christ Church Cathedral Choir/Stephen Darlington
rec. Dorchester Abbey, Oxfordshire, England, 2930 October 1990. DDD.
Booklet with notes in English, texts and translations.

NIMBUS NI5287 [56:14]

William Byrd (1539/1543?-1623)
Mass for Five Voices (early 1590s) with the Propers for All Saintsí Day

Introitus: Gaudeamus omnes (Gradualia, 1605) [4:31]
Kyrie (Mass for Five Voices) [1.34]
Gloria (Mass for Five Voices) [5.42]
Gradualis: Timete Dominum (Gradualia, 1605) [4.00]
Credo (Mass for Five Voices) [10.11]
Offertorium: Justorum animae (Gradualia, 1605) [2.50]
Sanctus; Benedictus (Mass for Five Voices) [4.14]
Communio: Beati mundo corde (Gradualia, 1605) [2.55]
Agnus Dei (Mass for Five Voices) [4.12]
Motet: Laudibus in Sanctis [5.44]
Motet: Laudate pueri Dominum [3.42]
Motet: Laudate Dominum [2.37]
Christ Church Cathedral Choir/Stephen Darlington
rec. Dorchester Abbey, Oxfordshire, 13-14 November 1989. DDD.
Booklet with notes in English, texts and translations.

NIMBUS NI5237 [52:12]

Experience Classicsonline



Byrdís three Masses are usually recorded as they were published: the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei, performed at every Mass (except that the Gloria is sometimes omitted) and known as the Ordinary of the Mass. Several versions are available in this format. Some continue to cherish the Kingís College/Willcocks recordings, but my own preference would be for the Tallis Scholars on Gimell. This was recently reissued as a 2-CD bargain, coupled with the Great Service and other works (CDGIM208) and praised by my Musicweb colleague MG Ė see review Ė for their freshness and fluency.

Having owned the original single Gimell CDs for a long time Ė and having played them frequently Ė I concur with both his praise of these recordings and his minor reservations. If you want the Masses in this form, you cannot do better Ė and you will be getting a good performance of The Great Service as a bonus.

In fact, the 2-CD set is a wonderful bargain, since a number of extra tracks have been added to make total playing times of 79:05 and 79:03 Ė Infelix ego, apparently recorded at the same time as the Masses, together with Vigilate, Tristitia et anxietas, Ne irasceris, Domine and Prevent us, O Lord, recorded in Tewkesbury Abbey in 2006. In order for me to work with their latest version, rather than the two older CDs which I have owned for some time, Gimell kindly gave me access to download the lossless wma version of this 2-CD album. If you just want the three Masses, together with The Great Service and the other pieces, you canít go wrong with CDGIM208 in any form. The 2-CD reissue also includes the texts which were absent from my original single CD copies. The wma sound is in every way the equal of the CDs.

If youíre wondering whether The Great Service is worth having, my answer is a strong affirmative Ė itís one of the earliest settings of Mattins and Evensong from the Book of Common Prayer, yet it set the pattern for other composers. The ardent Romanist Byrd somehow contrived to be sympathetic enough to the Elizabethan compromise to write music clearly within the tradition of Tudor polyphony while respecting the reformersí concern for the words to be heard clearly. This was a concern which Rome also shared, following the Tridentine reforms.

But the Ordinary of the Mass is never performed on its own, except in concert performances. In Byrdís day these settings would have had to be performed privately in the houses of the recusant nobility and gentry, such as that of his patrons the Petres at Ingatestone. It is, therefore, surprising that Byrdís name appears clearly on the front covers of these three Masses.

In theory these settings could have been used at the Chapel Royal, where the Queen encouraged the performance of music with Latin texts, and at the universities, since the Prayer Book explicitly allows the employment of Latin wherever it is "understanded of the people"; St Maryís University Church in Oxford still employs the Latin Eucharist authorised in Elizabethan times at the start of each full term. You can even find the text online. Nowadays settings by Byrd and other composers can be performed openly in churches and cathedrals: the Sunday Sung Eucharist at Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, for example, whose choir made these recordings, regularly features a polyphonic setting.

These three Nimbus recordings set each of the Masses in the context of a particular feast day, placing the Ordinary within the Proper Ė Introit, Gradual, Offertory, Communion Ė of that day. These, too, are mostly in Byrdís own settings from the two books of Gradualia, which he published in 1605 and 1607. The Three-part Mass comes with the Propers for Christmas, together with five other pieces from the Breviary services for that day; the Four-part with the Propers for Corpus Christi, plus three hymns to the Sacrament; the Five-part with Propers for All Saints, plus three motets.

The normal practice in reconstructed performances of Mass settings is to intersperse the polyphonic parts with the plainsong propers of the day but, since Byrdís Gradualia can surely only have been composed to have been sung at Mass, it makes sense to employ them here. The pieces from the Gradualia certainly benefit from being heard in context, rather than as isolated works; heard in isolation, as on a Hereford Cathedral Choir recording (Griffin Records GCCD 4048 Ė see review) they tend to disappoint.

Even on such an excellent recording as that by the William Byrd Choir under Gavin Turner (Hyperion Helios CDH55047) the Gradualia tend to sound disjointed, like bleeding chunks of Wagner. The pieces from his earlier collection Cantiones Sacræ tend to be more satisfying in that regard, as on the recording by The Cardinallís Musick, directed by Anthony Carwood (Hyperion CDA67568, a Recording of the Month Ė see review). If, however, you are looking for a collection of pieces from the Gradualia, try the Turner/Hyperion or the equally inexpensive and attractive collection Music for a Hidden Chapel, sung by Chanticleer on Harmonia Mundi HCX395 5182, also available from iTunes.

There is no duplication on the Chanticleer recording of the pieces from Gradualia employed on these three Nimbus CDS. My only complaint about this, and other bargains in the Harmonia Mundi Classical Express series, such as Campionís Lute Songs on HCX395 7023 is the garish covers. Chanticleerís Byrd is also available, with a more attractive cover, in a 3-CD super-budget compilation, with music by Orlando Gibbons (Magdalen College) and Pelham Humfrey (Clare College/Romanesca) on HMX290 7454. I havenít heard the Gibbons but can recommend the Humfrey recording.

The arrangement on these Nimbus recordings avoids the tension inherent in juxtaposing chant and polyphony. In practice, such juxtapositions would have been avoided by the intervention of other parts of the service Ė the polyphonic Gloria separated from the chanted Gradual, for example, by the Collect(s) and Epistle of the day. In the Sarum and Tridentine Latin rites only the chanted Introit and polyphonic Kyrie would have followed each other without intervening sections.

The three-part Mass is a marvel of economy. Not for Byrd the forty-part magnificence of Tallisís famous Spem in alium, since these works were not intended to be sung with the facilities of the Chapel Royal at his disposal. Instead of settling for mend-and-make-do with the more modest facilities at his disposal, he turned necessity into a virtue.

This performance of the three-part Mass begins with the Introit Puer natus est nobis from the Second Book of Gradualia (1607). I doubt whether Byrd ever heard this better sung than it is here. He would have envisaged smaller forces but the Christ Church choir never swamp or force the music. The same is true in their singing of the first items from the Mass itself, the very short Kyrie and the Gloria which follows. It is often said that Byrdís music for the Roman liturgy is more intense and personal than that for Anglican use, but the short duration of the Kyrie of this Mass will not bear intense singing and the Gloria is pensive rather than overtly celebratory. The Christ Church choir are right to offer straightforward rather than affective singing here. It is only to be expected that, with a larger body of performers, their tempi will be a little slower than those of The Tallis Scholars, but there is not much in it (4:49 for the Gloria against 4:33). The upward transposition of the music on the Nimbus recording for treble, alto and tenor adds to the feeling of lightness which the performance evokes.

That the Gloria is followed by the Gradual, Viderunt omnes, rather than the Creed, is very appropriate, since, again, this is a considered rather than an exuberant setting. Of course, in an actual celebration, the Collect and Epistle would have intervened Ė perhaps some day the likes of Paul McCreesh will perform a reconstruction of a complete Mass, of the kind for which he is justly famous.

The Credo is noticeably slower than on the Gimell recording (7:31 against 6:39) which allows the listener to absorb the words of this act of faith. In reformed usage, Lutheran and Anglican, the Creed is rarely set; spoken or recited to a simple chant such as that by Merbecke which has survived 500 years of Anglican usage, the words matter more than the music. The Christ Church singers slow considerably at the words et incarnatus est, thereby marking the traditional custom of kneeling or bowing during the recitation of this account of the Nativity and Passion, returning to tempo at et resurrexit.

The Sanctus and Benedictus take almost identical times on the two recordings but the Christ Church Agnus Dei is again slower at 3:40 against 3:14. The Tallis Scholars could hardly be accused of being perfunctory in their rendition of the Agnus, but the Nimbus performers are again more mindful of the reverent manner in which these words are traditionally sung in an actual celebration. They never allow the music to drag, but their slowish tempo here also offers an effective contrast with the Communion verse, Viderunt omnes.

The predominant feeling from the Christ Church performance of the three-part Mass is of dignified and solemn rejoicing rather than exuberance, which is surely the right mood for the small recusant community centred on Ingatestone. If you want to get into Byrdís inmost feelings about the position that he and his co-religonists found themselves in, listen to the exasperated tone of his Why do I waste my paper, ink and pen? on the Magdalen College CD of the Second Service, to which I refer at the end of this review.

The Nimbus CD is rounded off with performances of other Christmastide pieces from the Gradualia, all performed very satisfactorily. The inclusion of the Vespers Antiphon Hodie Christus natus est is particularly welcome and the Responsory O magnum mysterium rounds off the CD very effectively. Even with these additions, however, the overall playing time of 51:51 seems a little mean. None of these Nimbus recordings approaches the value of the two very well filled Gimell CDs.

In the four- and five-part Masses, too, The Tallis Scholars are on the whole slightly faster than the Christ Church choir; though they are never so fast as to seem perfunctory, this allows them to include all three Masses on one CD and to add an excellent performance of Ave verum corpus. This is often said to be Ďeasierí to perform than Mozartís setting, though I am not so sure Ė certainly, very few choirs would be able to match the performance on the Gimell CD, now made even better value by the addition of Vigilate.

As with the three-part Mass, the four-part not only employs the propers (Introit, etc.) for the feast of Corpus Christi, it is rounded off with settings of three pieces associated with that feast, Pange lingua, Ave verum corpus and O salutaris hostia. Similarly, the five-part Mass disc ends with three motets for All Saints Day, Laudibus in Sanctis, Laudate pueri and Laudate Dominum.

The Corpus Christi propers which accompany the four-part Mass receive more affirmative settings than the Christmas propers. Perhaps this is because Corpus Christi no longer featured in the Anglican calendar and the display of the Sacrament at Benediction, associated with it, was strenuously criticised in the 39 Articles:

The Sacrament of the Lordís Supper was not by Godís ordinance reserved, carried about, lifted up or worshipped. [Article XXVIII]

Am I mistaken in thinking that Byrd sets the words et in unam sanctam Catholicam et Apostlicam ecclesiam Ė and in one holy Catholic and Apostolic church Ė with special emphasis, since they would have had a different significance for his recusant congregation than when the same words were chanted in English in the Anglican Communion service? Whatever the reason, the four-part Mass suits those settings well: the Kyrie, Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei are more intense than in the three-part setting, the Gloria and Creed more susceptible of the celebratory performances which they receive from the Christ Church choir. Of the additional settings which end the CD, Ave verum Corpus (tr.12) receives a particularly effective devotional performance, just one second faster than the equally fine version from The Tallis Scholars. Only the Sequence, Lauda Sion, sung rather rapidly in plainsong, slightly outstays its welcome on this CD.

The five-part Mass, with the All Saintsí Day texts, brings similar rewards. I enjoyed my re-encounter with the Christ Church choir on these Nimbus CDs more than any of their other recordings of English church music which I have recently reviewed. I am glad that all these recordings are once more available with the resurgence of the Nimbus label, but most glad of all for the restoration of these Byrd recordings, which provide an excellent alternative to hearing the three Masses in the Tallis Scholarsí Gimell recording. Ideally, Iíd want both.

The Nimbus recordings are more successful than some of their earlier Dorchester Abbey recordings, though still a touch backward at times in the three-part Mass. Balance does seem to vary from moment to moment on all three CDs; the Gimell recordings are preferable, but this is not a serious problem. My Arcam deck refused to play or even recognise the four-part CD, a disdain which it usually reserves for some CDRs, but my other decks were quite happy with it.

Whether heard on its own or with the propers, this is marvellous music and I urge you to get to know it if you donít already. The Gimell versions will serve you very well if you want the Masses alone and these Christ Church performances will do almost as well if you prefer the Masses with propers. I have seen their performances criticised on the grounds that this is the sort of sound that the choristers regularly produce. Agreed that they donít make any special effort to sound like what Byrd would have heard at Ingatestone, whatever that was, but if you heard them sing one of these Masses on a Sunday morning in Oxford, I guarantee that the sound would contribute considerably to whatever spiritual value you gained from the service.

You should, however, be aware of the versions by The Sixteen under Harry Christophers on a super-budget-price 2-CD Virgin Veritas set for less than the price of one Nimbus CD: the four-part Mass with the propers for SS Peter and Paul and the 5-part with those for All Saints, as on the Nimbus recording, plus six motets (5 62013 2) Ė excellent value, though not unequivocally welcomed in some quarters.

If youíre still looking for other music by Byrd, try the Second Service and Consort Anthems recording made by Magdalen College Choir under Bill Ives (Harmonia Mundi HMU90 7440). Iím slightly less enthusiastic about this recording than my colleague MG, who made it his Recording of the Month Ė see review: the trebles in the opening anthem Arise, O Lord, are just too raw for me, but matters very soon improve and I certainly havenít regretted following his advice to buy this recording, even though it duplicates some of the English works on the Gimell CDs.

Brian Wilson

 

 

 

 


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