Upheld by stillness: Renaissance gems and their reflections – Volume
1: Byrd Philippe de MONTE (1521-1603) Super flumina Babylonis
[4:46] William BYRD (c.1540-1623) Quomodo cantabimus [7:02]
Mass for Five Voices [23:08] Roxanna PANUFNIK (b.1968) Kyrie after Byrd * [3:44] Francis POTT (b.1957) Laudate Dominum * [6:00] Alexander L’ESTRANGE (b.1974) Show me, deare Christ * [13:10]
Owain PARK (b.1993) Upheld by stillness * [6:54] Charlotte BRAY (b.1982) Agnus Dei * [4:40] William BYRD Ave verum corpus [3:34] Roderick WILLIAMS (b.1965) Ave verum corpus re-imagined
ORA (Zoe Brown, Julie Cooper, Elizabeth Drury, Camilla Harris, Emilia
Morton, Emma Walshe [sopranos]; David Clegg, Edward McMullan, Eleanor
Minney, Kim Porter [altos]; Jeremy Budd, Steven Harrold, Nicholas Madden,
Nicholas Todd [tenors]; Richard Bannan, Ben Davies, William Gaunt, Edmund
Saddington [Basses])/Suzi Digby
* Work commissioned by ORA and world premiere recording
rec. St Alban’s, Holborn, London, 16-18 February 2015. DDD
Texts and translations included HARMONIA MUNDI HMW906102 [78:44]
Reviewed as 24/96 download from eclassical.com
(also available in mp3 and 16-bit lossless, all with pdf booklet) and
from dealers on CD.
This is the first of a planned series of recordings devised to offset
renaissance music against modern compositions inspired by it or of comparable
quality, ranging from more established and prominent names to lesser-known
but equally exciting discoveries. Most of them were commissioned by
ORA themselves, founded in 2014 in the belief that we are in a second
golden age of choral music, matching that of the Renaissance.
ORA’s stated aim is to ‘show these pieces, both new and old, as the
stunning works of art that they truly are’, in conjunction with its
affiliate patron’s group ORA100. The headline news about this first
volume is that they have succeeded very well in persuading me of the
value of the project – with a few reservations – and their ability to
realise it. I see that it’s already a best-seller from Amazon UK, mere
days after its release. There’s an interview with Suzi Digby at prestoclassical.co.uk
and the Harmonia Mundi booklet of notes is available to all-comers from
The two works which open the programme come from a series of paired
compositions between the English recusant composer William Byrd and
continental contemporaries. Byrd’s disaffection with the Anglican Church
and his (dangerous) affiliation to the Old Faith was common knowledge,
even at the time when he was working at Queen Elizabeth’s Chapel Royal,
but it was tolerated. Even so, he deeply felt the subjugation of traditional
beliefs and the persecution of his fellow adherents to the Roman rite,
openly expressed in his setting of his own words ‘Why do I use my paper
inke and penne?’ (Recorded by I Fagiolini on The Caged Byrd:
These paired works contain a more subtle but still easily deciphered
exasperation: the continental Catholic Philippe de Monte begins the
psalm of the Israelites in exile, ‘By the waters of Babylon we sat down
and wept’ and Byrd replies ‘How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange
land?’ Byrd and other continental composers collaborated on a number
of paired settings of this kind, often with significant texts, such
as Tu es Petrus, thou art Peter, the text on which the Roman
supremacy is founded, set by Byrd and Palestrina. Similarly Ave
verum Corpus, which a Catholic like Byrd would have interpreted
as founded on the medieval doctrine of transubstantiation, was set by
Byrd and the English Catholic refugee Peter Philips. The English liturgy,
while clearly capable of a Eucharistic real presence interpretation,
also allows for the Protestant view of Holy Communion as merely commemorative.
The King’s recording on which these settings were paired, most recently
on Classics for Pleasure, is available now only as a download: subscribers
to Qobuz will find it there and it can be downloaded in lossless
sound, though without booklet, for £5.97.
In several important ways the King’s/David Willcocks way with Byrd will
never date and it’s a shame that the CFP recording is no longer in general
circulation, but it does represent an older, less authentic style of
performance, more suited to Byrd’s music for the English church. The
comparison for ORA’s new recordings has to be with the likes of I Fagiolini,
who include Quomodo cantabimus? on the The Caged Byrd
Both the de Monte and Byrd are included on a selection of works by those
two composers sung by Gallicantus directed by Gabriel Crouch, The
Word Unspoken (Signum SIGCD295: Recording of the Month – review
) and my comparison has been with their performances. I mentioned that
recording in Download News 2012/22 but don’t seem to have followed it
up, so I downloaded it in lossless sound, with pdf booklet, from hyperion-records.co.uk.
It’s a very well performed collection of mainly penitential works by
the two composers but it’s for the two excerpts from the Babylonian
Captivity psalm that I listened to it for this review. They end the
Signum recording as they begin the new Harmonia Mundi.
There are clear differences between the two and also between the new
recording of the Byrd and that on another recording which I hold in
high esteem: music by Byrd, Parson and White entitled Where late
the sweet Birds sang (Linn CKD417: Magnificat/Philip Cave – review).
Gallicantus pace the de Monte considerably more slowly than ORA or I
Fagiolini on Chandos, and while I find myself preferring that slower
pace, especially appropriate in the context of the other works on Signum,
the faster pace of ORA also works well.
On the other hand the Byrd reply is taken faster by Gallicantus and
by I Fagiolini, as if he was the more agitated of the two composers
– as, indeed, being in the thick of things he may well have been. Magnificat
on Linn go in the opposite direction, yet, though the differences are
considerable on paper – from 5:57 to 8:35 – all four work well in context
and that context is very different for each of the three versions.
That of the Linn recording is of mourning for a past gone beyond retrieval,
hence the Shakespeare quotation in the title, while the Chandos centres
on Byrd’s frustration and anger, so there’s no real competition. The
Linn recording quality, which I reviewed both on SACD and as a 24/96
download, is particularly good but the new Harmonia Mundi is very good,
too, especially in that format, and the Signum, though 16-bit only,
not at all far behind.
Incidentally, there’s a moral here for those who are as disorganised
as myself: I couldn’t lay hands on the Linn SACD and it took me some
time to remember that the download is filed under ‘Music/Linn/Parsons_White_Byrd’.
It seemed logical at the time but not when I started to look for it.
That’s the problem with downloads of recordings featuring several composers:
I’ve saved this under ‘ORA Upheld by stillness’, but that might not
seem logical, either, when I look for it in future.
There are almost too many recordings of the Byrd to name, even among
versions that I placed at or near the top of my preferences, and lovers
of sixteenth-century music will almost certainly already own one or
more, so you’re not likely to choose the new recording for that alone.
One of the best and least expensive ways to obtain all three Byrd Masses
plus the Great Service, Ave verum Corpus and several shorter
English and Latin works is on the 2-for-1 Gimell set The Tallis Scholars
sing William Byrd (CDGIM208), available on disc for around £13 and
as a download from Gimell
for £7.99, with texts and translations.
The Tallis Scholars tend to take their time to breathe in Byrd, as do
the Westminster Cathedral Choir and Martin Baker on another highly recommendable
recording (Hyperion CDA68038 – review).
ORA adopt a very similar approach to the 5-part Mass and one which
I greatly enjoyed hearing at the same time as appreciating that a slightly
faster approach can work, too, as on Philippe Herreweghe’s recent recording
where it’s coupled with Infelix Ego and other works (PHI LPH014
The newly commissioned works are all clearly of our time but equally
clearly in an obvious line of descent from the music of the Sixteenth
Century. The most angular is Roxana Panufnik’s take on Byrd’s Kyrie
but no more so than the Byrd would have sounded to the recusant group
at Ingatestone for whom it was performed: in many ways Byrd’s English
music for large forces is more clearly descended from pre-Reformation
models than his smaller-scale Latin settings. It was unusual for an
English composer to set the Kyrie, normally sung in plainchant
and, before the Reformation, in a much-extended form with extra clauses.
Perhaps because of the perilous position of the recusant community,
Byrd’s setting is far from exuberant in nature, longer than that of
the three-part setting, though shorter than the four-part, and Panufnik
picks up and enlarges its penitential nature in her response.
On paper Alexander Lestrange’s Show me deare Christ looks odd,
with disjointed quotations from the poetry of John Donne, who converted
from Catholicism and became the Anglican Dean of St Paul’s, Byrd’s own
will, Psalm 51, the martyr priests Campion and Southwell and excerpts
from the Athanasian and Nicene Creeds in Latin and in Merbecke’s English
setting. In practice, however, it works very well.
If there is room for differences in interpreting the music of Byrd,
these are by definition the benchmark recordings of the new works.
They are, however, all well worthy of other recordings and I hope that
they will be taken up by other groups.
The Harmonia Mundi 24-bit download is rather expensive at $21.12, but
that reflects eclassical.com’s per-second charging policy: in this case
for an album little short of the theoretical 80-minute maximum. It’s
more than you would expect to pay for an SACD but in this case there’s
only a CD on hard disc, so downloading is your only route to 24-bit
sound. In fact the Linn recording which I mentioned above costs even
more, at £18, in 24-bit form. The 16-bit and mp3 of the new album,
at $17.60, certainly are over-priced: your target price for the CD is
£11.50 but one dealer currently has it for £10.50.
Only those lovers of Byrd for whom mingling the old and new is anathema
can fail to be impressed by this new recording. Others should not hesitate.
I hope that this album succeeds as it deserves to do and look forward
with interest to the forthcoming sequels.