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William BYRD (1539/40–1623)
The Three Masses
Mass for five voices [23:51]
Mass for four voices [23:22]
Mass for three voices [19:32]
Ave verum corpus [4:43]
Westminster Cathedral Choir/Martin Baker
rec. Westminster Cathedral, London, October 2013. DDD
Booklet with texts and translations included
Reviewed as high-definition 24/96 download from Hyperion Records. Also available on CD and as mp3 and 16-bit CD-quality downloads.
HYPERION CDA68038 [71:30]

Byrd’s three Masses are in a simpler, less florid polyphonic style than those of his Tudor predecessors. Partly this was of necessity, since he would have had a less skilled group of singers at his disposal than those who performed his English settings at the Chapel Royal. It was also to satisfy the needs of both the Anglican and post-Tridentine Roman rites, a trend seen also in the music of his contemporaries such as Palestrina. In particular the dazzling high treble parts of the earlier style are less in evidence.

Byrd also broke with tradition in setting the opening Kyrie eleison, omitted from most early Tudor settings, to be sung in plainsong or in an independent setting such as the Kyrie le Roy. The Tallis Scholars used this as a preface to their earlier recording of Taverner’s Missa Gloria Tibi Trinitas (Gimell CDGIM004). The Kyries set the tone for Byrd’s plainer style: unlike the Taverner, at almost four minutes, none much exceeds two minutes and those for the three-part setting take only about 40 seconds.

Before I started making comparison with other recordings, I listened to the new album right through.  If you want to cut out the waffle and get to the point, I thought it as good as any version of these settings that I had heard.  With good recording to boot – slightly, but not unduly, inhibited by the cathedral acoustic – and the availability of 24-bit sound, lovers of Byrd’s Masses should be able to buy with confidence.  Check the end of the review, for news of the generous free track that will allow you to judge for yourself.

Before the renaissance music specialists gave us their thoughts on Byrd’s music it was being performed by cathedral choirs, in particular at Westminster, the home of England’s Roman Catholic revival. So although we already have a number of very fine recordings from The Tallis Scholars (Gimell CDGIM208), The Sixteen (Virgin/Erato 5620132: four- and five-part Masses) and The Cardinall’s Musick (ASV CDGAU206), to name but three, it’s good to have these from the Westminster Cathedral Choir.

All three of the ‘specialist’ recordings are good value: the Gimell and Virgin are inexpensive twofers, coupled with other music by Byrd, and the ASV sells for around £7.50. In the bargain basement performances by the Pro Arte Singers and Paul Hillier (Harmonia Mundi D’Abord HMA1957223) and of the 4- and 5-part Masses by Jeremy Summerly (Naxos 8.550574) are by no means to be sniffed at.

These recordings are informed by scholarly research into the performing style of the period. They also approximate to the scale of performance which Byrd would have expected from the small forces at his disposal in the recusant refuge at Ingatestone in Essex for which the music was intended. His music for the Anglican church, in English and in Latin, was designed for the considerable forces of the Chapel Royal. As for the Masses and the propers for various feast days, these could never have been performed in public after the papal bull Regnans in excelsis and the plots centred on Mary Queen of Scots. These and the attempted Spanish Armada made every supporter of the old faith, even one favoured by the Queen, like Byrd, a potential traitor.

It’s with cathedral choir recordings, however, that the present performances should be compared: I leave out the elderly King’s College, Cambridge, recording with David Willcocks. It's pioneering in its way but is now dated in style: Newton Classics, 2 budget-price CDs, 8802020, with Taverner Western Wynde Mass. There’s rather more to be said for the Alto reissue of this performance of the five-part Mass, coupled with the Great Service (ALC1182). The Great Service, intended for Anglican use, sits more comfortably with King’s, but there is an even finer version of that work with the Westminster Abbey Choir on another Hyperion recording (CDA67533review), The Tallis Scholars also offer a very fine performance on the Gimell twofer which also contains the three Masses (see above), as do The Cardinall’s Musick on another Hyperion (CDA67937 – October 2012 Download Roundup).

David Hill, who had previously directed the Westminster choristers, recorded the three Masses with Winchester Cathedral Choir (Australian Decca Eloquence 4676112). There’s also a particularly interesting series from the choir of Christ Church, Oxford, combining each of the three Masses with appropriate music for a particular festival:
• NI5302: Mass for three voices with propers for the Nativity
• NI5287: Mass for four voices with propers for Ascension, Pentecost and Corpus Christi
• NI5237: Mass for five voices with propers for All Saints’ Day

The Masses on their own from these recordings have been reissued on the budget-price Regis disc: RRC1336. The Regis CD was a Bargain of the Month: in my review you’ll find a discussion of the merits of the single CD against the three Nimbus discs and a link to the group review of these.

That all adds up to formidable competition, especially as the Winchester and Oxford choirs largely eschew the Anglican ‘hoot’ in performing this music. I listened again to the Winchester recording in its original incarnation on the Argo label – stream from Qobuz. It’s some time since I heard it – I hadn’t used it in recent comparisons – and I now think it gets into the spirit of the music even more than the Christ Church recordings.

The difference between these Anglican cathedral recordings and the new Westminster is not earth-shattering but is significant. If the former take some pains to modify their style, so do their Roman Catholic counterparts, resulting in a kind of meeting in the middle. The Westminster Cathedral choir was founded with the avowed purpose of reproducing a more ‘continental’ sound for the music of the counter-reformation. Byrd’s music was at once the culmination of the earlier Tudor style and the foundation of a new tradition which modern English cathedral choirs have inherited. His older fellow-composer Thomas Tallis had had some success in adapting his music to the new requirements but Byrd was the first whose English settings are as successful as his Latin ones.

The Winchester singers consistently take the three opening sections, Kyrie, Gloria and Credo, slightly faster than their Westminster counterparts on the new recording. The boot is on the other foot in the Sanctus and Benedictus (combined in the 3- and 4- part settings) and Agnus Dei. None of these differences are great enough to be significant except in the case of the Agnus Dei of the 4-part setting: a slow and reverential 4:23 in Winchester, 3:36 in Westminster.

Thinking that this might be due to the different denominations of the two choirs – the Agnus Dei is the last sung section in Latin. However, the Winchester choir would be used to singing the English 1662 rite where the Gloria was transposed to the end of the service. This made it more natural to take the Agnus Dei slowly since a more celebratory text was to follow – I checked the Christ Church recording. At 3:38 that’s just two seconds slower than from the Westminster choristers, yet it sounds no less reverential than on the Winchester recording.

Specialist groups are a little faster here: 3:15 from The Tallis Scholars. With smaller forces they can afford to push the pace a little and still sound reverential. It might be expected that the greater forces and vast spaces of Westminster Cathedral would require a slower tempo but their recording of this section in many ways seems the most reverential of all. If anything, I wanted to give it a tiny push at times, but ended by marginally preferring this performance to the rest. Aided by the clarity of the recording, which nevertheless gives a sense of the ambiance of the Cathedral, all four parts of the setting shine through in a balance between the voices achieved at least as well as on any other recording.

I also compared the various recordings of the Gloria of the four-part setting because this is available for free download to allow you to judge for yourselves. At 5:56 Martin Baker at Westminster sets the pace a little more slowly than David Hill at Winchester (5:39) or Peter Phillips with The Tallis Scholars (5:30). Stephen Darlington is in the middle at Christ Church (5:42). Since the Gloria is often set at a rollicking pace – think of the Vivaldi Gloria in the hands of Rinaldo Alessandrini or even the more sedate performance of Christopher Hogwood* – you might think that the slower pace would be to the detriment of the mood. These were not happy times for Roman Catholics such as Byrd** so this is not the jolliest Gloria that you could imagine and it seems to me that Baker gets the tone and pace just right. Harry Christophers with The Sixteen is slower still, at 6:13, without allowing the music to drag.

That penultimate track of the new CD just puts the new recording slightly ahead even of the distinguished opposition. That’s not the end of the story: the concluding Ave Verum Corpus also receives a very fine performance and recording. Here again the natural comparison is with Christ Church and Stephen Darlington: typically a slightly brighter, more ‘English’ sound and, at 4:04, a little brisker than The Tallis Scholars (4:14) and, on paper, considerably faster than the new Westminster recording (4:43). In the days when I used to pretend to sing in a church choir, the choirmaster always maintained that the Byrd Ave Verum Corpus was harder to sing than the Mozart setting. I’m sure he was right, but listening to these different views of how it should sound reminds me that there is often more than one ‘right’ approach to a piece of music. I’d be hard put to decide which of these three wonderful performances to take to my Desert Island.

If I could have 24-bit sound on the island, the new Hyperion would have to be my first choice. It also sounds fine even in mp3 – I haven’t tested the in-between 16-bit version – and it comes with a booklet of the usual high Hyperion quality.

To sum up, it’s a very close-run choice. The characteristic Westminster sound is less in evidence than on some of their other recordings for Hyperion – appropriately so, I think, for Byrd – and other performances tend to meet them on middle ground. If you are looking for a bargain, Christ Church Cathedral Choir on Regis offer exactly the same programme, the three masses plus Ave Verum Corpus, for about half the price – typically around £5. The new recording is worth the extra, especially as it’s the only one in 24-bit sound, and the price differential is reduced if you choose to download: £7.99 for mp3 or 16-bit, £12.00 for 24-bit.

You don’t even have to accept my word for the quality of the new recording: the Gloria of the 4-part Mass is available to download free, either from here or from the September 2014 free sampler HYP201409, with excerpts from Hyperion’s other September releases.

* recently reissued by Decca on a super-budget 50-CD set of baroque music, also available on two 25-CD-equivalent downloads: see Download News 2014/10.

** he exchanged a number of settings of the theme of spiritual exile – How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? – with contemporary continental composers. Many of his contributions to the Cantiones Sacræ, too, especially in the second and third books, are penitential in nature.

Brian Wilson