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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 * [5:46]
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 eclassical.com.

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: Chandos CHAN0609).

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 listed above.

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 and Hyperion 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 – Download News 2014/14).

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.

Brian Wilson

 

 




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