William BYRD (1539?/43?-1623)
Mass for Five Voices (c.1595)* [26:02]
Mass for Four Voices (c.1592)** [22:43]
Mass for Three Voices (early 1590s)*** [19:24]
Ave Verum Corpus (Gradualia, 1605)** [4:04]
Christ Church Cathedral Choir, Oxford/Stephen Darlington
rec. Dorchester Abbey, Oxon., UK, 13-14 November, 1989*, 29-30 October, 1990**, 13-14 May 1991***. DDD
REGIS RRC1336 [72:11]

These recordings are taken from three Nimbus CDs, NI5237, 5287 and 5320, which I reviewed jointly some time ago – see review. Nimbus issued them separately, each with an appropriate coupling – the 5-part with the Propers for All Saints’ Day, the 4-part with those for Corpus Christi, including the Ave verum Corpus on the new Regis CD, and the 3-part with those for the Nativity.

I was torn then between the virtues of The Tallis Scholars on a 2-for-1 Gimmel reissue – the three masses and Ave verum Corpus, plus The Great Service – and the advantages of having the Masses sung by Christ Church choir as they would have been in a liturgical celebration with the Introit, etc., for a particular day. That option remains open, as the Nimbus CDs are still available – and can be ordered direct from MusicWeb International – but the reissue on a single CD at super-budget price is obviously very appealing.

The advantages of having Christ Church Choir sing this music are obvious: this is a college/cathedral choir which performs this kind of repertoire regularly at daily services. Moreover, the constitution of the choir has remained unchanged since the college was founded by Cardinal Wolsey, before even Byrd was born. Though that doesn’t mean that the sound is what Byrd would have expected, it does mean that their singing of renaissance English music is special.

The Tallis Scholars sing with a combination of men’s and women’s voices, but they are probably closer in size to the forces which Byrd would have had at his disposal. While he could think in terms of the Chapel Royal for his settings of the English liturgy in the Great Service, Second Service and Anthems, the Latin Mass had to be celebrated hugger-mugger in small private chapels such as that of Byrd’s patrons, the Petres, at Ingatestone in Essex.

Excellent as the singing of the Christ Church choir is, The Tallis Scholars – whose base is also in Oxford and whose director cut his teeth in the same tradition as the choir – are a professional group whose work I consistently admire. Their recording costs slightly more than the Regis reissue, but you also obtain a wonderful performance of The Great Service and three English anthems. It comes with all the texts and translations, which the Regis CD doesn’t contain and it can also be downloaded for £7.99 (mp3) or £8.99 (lossless), which actually makes it more than competitive with the Regis. (The Tallis Scholars sing William Byrd, CDGIM208 – here).

The Tallis Scholars are not renowned as speed merchants, but their timings for the Byrd Masses are generally slightly faster than those adopted by Stephen Darlington. I suspect that he takes the music a little more slowly because he’s used to the acoustic of Christ Church chapel, even though these recordings were made in the friendlier acoustic of Dorchester Abbey, a few miles down the road. Despite a preference for the Scholars, I didn’t think that the Christ Church tempi dragged at any point – they are generally solemn and dignified rather than exuberant. In Ave verum Corpus, they are actually very slightly faster than the Scholars, without losing the sense of reverence appropriate to the work.

That motet is taken from Byrd’s 1605 collection of Gradualia, performed out of context on the Regis CD and on the Gimell set, but in its proper context as part of the Mass for Corpus Christi in its position on the original Nimbus recording. Fine though the performance is, these pieces do benefit from being sung in context, but only you can decide whether that warrants the outlay on three CDs as opposed to purchasing the single Regis disc. If you would like to listen to more of these Gradualia, you’ll find them on the Cardinall’s Musick recordings which I’ve mentioned – the earlier CDs on the ASV label are not easy to find, but the later volumes on Hyperion are. Hyperion also have a single CD from the Gradualia – William Byrd Choir/Gavin Turner on budget-price CDH55047.

There’s another recording in the same price bracket as the Regis: Jeremy Summerly directing another Oxford-based ensemble, the Oxford Camerata on Naxos (8.550574). The snag is that it offers only the four- and five-part Masses, plus Infelix ego. You’ll probably want all three Masses – and Infelix ego has a serious rival: it’s the piece which gives its name to the crowning achievement of Andrew Carwood’s and The Cardinall’s Musick’s recent complete survey of Byrd’s music. (Hyperion CDA67779: Recording of the Month – see review and Download of the Month – see February 2010 Roundup).

Neither the Naxos nor the Regis CDs come with texts; those for the ordinary of the Mass and Ave verum Corpus are not hard to find online, but it’s still a nuisance to have to search for them.

All the recordings mentioned sound very well. Christ Church were recorded in their favourite venue down the road at Dorchester and the sound has been well re-mastered for Regis, levelling out the different recording dates. The re-mastering even seems to have ironed out the slightly distant recording in the three-part work. If you just want the three Masses and Ave verum Corpus at super-budget price, this is an excellent bargain of the same order as another Nimbus-sourced Regis recording, Masters of the English Renaissance (RRC1320 – see December 2010 Download Roundup).

Brian Wilson

Despite the strong competition, this is a superb bargain.