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William BYRD (1539/40-1623) Motets
King’s College Cambridge Choir/Stephen Cleobury
rec. King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, 2017
Booklet includes Latin sung texts and English translations KING’S COLLEGE KGS0024 [56:12]
Byrd composed motets for specific feast days of the Roman Catholic mass and for particular points in those celebrations. In this CD King’s College Cambridge Choir sing 19 motets in order of the church year from Advent. In the details after the review I give the feast days, but bear in mind here’s just a small selection from many motets Byrd composed for every feast day.
Rorate coeli, the Introit for the Lady Mass in Advent, is presented by King’s Choir as a formal opening for the beginning of the church year. The text exhorts the heavens to open and shower down righteousness: the emphasis is on descending figures, starkly and crisply displayed. The hope of ‘germinet salvatorem’ (tr. 1, 0:48), the blossoming of a saviour, has more contrapuntal rigour than excitement. The verse section, ‘Benedixisti Domine’ (1:14) has an appropriately more animated manner as it depicts release from the captivity of Jacob, after which the Gloria can even take on an element of dancing grace. The return of the opening section then seems a little more eager.
King’s performance is not what we’ve got used to listening to in recent years, in which Byrd motets have usually been presented by small choirs of mixed voices, such as my comparison here, Stile Antico, maximum 14 voices, recorded in 2010 (Harmonia Mundi HMU 807517). They are slower and smoother than King’s, 4:42 rather than 4:16. Their motet is a prayer rather than exhortation with more clarity of contrapuntal detail, the passing of motif from one vocal part to another, a performance to mull over rather than be confronted by. Your choice.
Vigilate is a march-past of word-painting. From King’s the title command is stern and weighty but lacks urgency. Is the texture rendered too thick by the resonant King’s chapel acoustic? The basses begin the necessary invigoration at ‘an gallicantu’ (tr. 2, 1:14), the imitation of cockcrow which grows energetically to a climax as it’s taken up by all parts, so here it seems you’re in a large shed of cocks at it. The flourish from 2:20 of the fastest rhythms of the motet at ‘repente’ to indicate ‘suddenly’ is like a galvanizing flash of fire. Most surprisingly of all, if you heard just the seductively slinking melismas picturing the sleepers at ‘dormientes’ from 2:44, you mightn’t believe this is King’s trebles, admittedly in low register. And be prepared to have your back thrust well and truly against the wall at the stony order of the first homophony at ‘omnibus dico’ (3:40) and the title word again to close. Do 32 voices take the drama too far? In their 2013 recording The Monteverdi Choir/John Eliot Gardiner (Soli Deo Gloria SDG 720) use 27 voices, with a soprano top line and mixed voice alto line. These are arguably as dramatic through different means. Their opening summons is conspiratorial, as if confiding a secret, because Gardiner wants us to see it epitomizes clandestine recusant music-making. The cockcrow then becomes the more strikingly lively, though not as tumultuous as King’s. Monteverdi’s flourishes of ‘repente’ make as much of a mark delivered lightly. Their ‘dormientes’ is smooth and sleepy but doesn’t have King’s hypnotic quality. Monteverdi’s closing commands are authoritative but don’t hit you like King’s. So while King’s low pitch makes the texture rather muddy at times it has a dramatic advantage that Monteverdi’s singing a fourth higher misses, albeit with beneficial clarity.
Hodie Beata Virgo Maria, the Magnificat antiphon for the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, is very much a transformation piece as presented by Cleobury. It begins sober and dutiful: the text led by the trebles; the altos, tenors and basses with a supportive, echoing role. Then, from ‘et benedixit Deum in aeternum’ (tr. 3, 1:44), its very last words, those of Simeon’s unending thanks for the presentation of Jesus, the polyphony becomes real and free, the harmonies colourful, the emotion and reason for it haunting. The only other recording currently available is that by King’s under David Willcocks published in 1965 (Warner Classics 5860482, download only). The difference in timing is amazing, Willcocks taking 3:40 to Cleobury’s 2:35. Yet how much more contemplative and beautiful the result. The pitch is a third higher. The mood is gentle, rapt, the treble tone crystalline, the detail of the part writing clearer, the phrases more distinctly placed. The lift given the faster rhythm at ‘repletus spiritu sancto’ indicating Simeon being filled with the Holy Spirit (tr. 3, 1:09 in Cleobury) and then Willcocks’ tapering down of its closing melisma in the treble part are movingly distinctive. It’s a historic document: the thinner tone of the lower parts and the somewhat precious diction wouldn’t be acceptable today, but musically it’s so telling. As everything is so expressive the closing polyphony stands out less, yet still the trebles’ final statement is made a luminous climax which then beguilingly fades into eternity.
The verse and final alleluia setting for the Purification of the B.V.M., Senex puerum portabit, is listed on King’s CD preceded by an Alleluia. Strictly this is the Alleluia of Sicut audivimus, the feast’s preceding Gradual verse, as shown by the layout in volume 5 of the Byrd Edition and commentary by Joseph Kerman in ‘The masses and motets of William Byrd’, pages 250-252. However, this preceding Alleluia is only sung when followed by Senex puerum portabit. It comes from King’s here with almost palpable zeal, you could even term it manic and the boys should exult when the Senex text is in the same vein, stating the boy ruled the old man. Durham Cathedral Choir/James Lancelot recorded in 2002 (Priory PRCD 801) in Senex go for a smoother dominance, more sanctified but less exciting.
Ne irascaris is the best known and most grippingly emotive of Byrd’s large motets. It begins with King’s lower voices solemn and troubled, then add the sound mass of the trebles and ‘mezzos’ and there’s a contrite warmth of fervent witness. I like the flow Cleobury brings here, even in heartfelt confession. The temperature rises with the beaming appeal of ‘Ecce’, ‘Behold’ (tr. 5, 1:32) and reminder, ‘populus tuus’, we are ‘your people’ (2:18). This is at the same time a humbly couched yet proud witness. It has more power with a sizable body of voices, albeit at some cost in King’s reverberant acoustic to the clarity of the melismas on ‘omnes’. The second part, ‘Civitas sancti tui’ is separately tracked here. King’s begin with a beauteous poetic glow depicting the holy city Jerusalem. Gradually we realize this is a memory as we are confronted with a wilderness. The smooth flow Cleobury brings to the counterpoint points up the irony. Then a poignant lament in homophony, ‘Sion deserta facta est’ (tr. 6, 1:29) and a long gaze reiterated among the parts wistfully seeming to recall happier times even as it spells out a panorama of devastation. How different is the effect with Gallicantus/Gabriel Crouch and 5 voices, one per part (Signum SIGCD 295, review) published in 2012, rather than King’s 32? The confrontation proves more intense. Coupled with a markedly slower tempo, 8:46 rather than King’s 7:34, they reveal more expressive contrapuntal detail, so we’re in no doubt about the depth of the process of repentance. Their ‘Ecce’ appeals have a heart-breaking anguish while their ‘populus tuus’ witness is movingly meek. The opening of the second part has a pristine purity, even though the perspective is sad, a clear-sighted, pained picture which grows in weariness. At their tr. 5, 5:13 Gallicantus on ‘deserta’ sing the fruity chord as originally printed, which I like, though it’s out of favour with scholars nowadays and doesn’t appear from King’s (tr. 6, 0:59). Unforgettable is the poise Gallicantus give ‘Sion deserta’, the rare absence of counterpoint bringing a sense of vast space. Serenity is found in the recollection of Jerusalem, despite facing the reality of devastation. Terra tremuit, the offertory setting for Easter Day mass is the terse yet shocking. An earthquake is presented on ‘tremuit’, the shuddering tremble achieved by oscillating crotchets, two chords rapidly delivered thrice. The aftershock comes immediately on ‘quievit’ where there’s a four-chord sequence, two tensing, two relaxing, heard twice. Cleobury gives a caustic account of this, topping it with a blazingly angry ‘Deus’ in the tenor giving God’s judgement. The closing Alleluias then rain down like firebrands. I compared Durham Cathedral Choir (PRCD 801). They also blaze fiery Alleluias but being faster, 0:46 against King’s 0:54, in an equally resonant acoustic, the tenors’ ‘Deus’ makes comparatively little impression and performing at a third lower pitch, the opening is less scary than King’s.
Haec dies is Byrd at his most madrigalian. It joyously greets the Lord’s day with a rising figure on ‘dies’ enjoyed in turn by all six parts. Beginning with King’s treble line it has great eagerness and freshness. There’s much to be said for 32 voices delivering this piece, especially in its second section, ‘exultemus’ (tr. 8, 0:40), the call to rejoice, more swinging with ebullient quickening of rhythm, the cross rhythms well sprung and ending in a rush of florid counterpoint. In the closing Alleluia section, Byrd’s longest and grandest, Cleobury brings clarity to both its expansive melodic and jazzy rhythmic elements yet with a fitting emphasis on the worshipfully expansive. The account recorded in 2009 by the Cardinall’s Musick/Andrew Carwood (Hyperion CDA 67779) only uses 12 voices. It’s much lighter sprung yet a cheery affair. Its Alleluia section veers between wistful reflection and steadfast exhortation.
Tollite portas takes us to Ascension. The emphasis of its opening section is on a beaming, rising line at ‘et elevamini’ (tr. 9, 0:18) as raising the gates for Christ to enter is observed again and again by the vocal parts in turn. The verse, ‘Quis ascendit’ (0:59) which asks how can we ascend, is presented as a stern question by the King’s medius (alto) voices and the answer, by being innocent and pure of heart, implies a softer tone than provided here before a disciplined chorus of Alleluias. Stile Antico (HMU 807517) with a slower approach, 2:10 against King’s 1:56, bring a sense of grateful celebration rather than King’s awe which is also somewhat forbidding. SA’s use of solo voices in the verse brings home its switch from the cosmic to the individual and its chorus of Alleluias has a rapt purity illustrating that required by the verse text.
Next come the alleluia verses for the Mass for the Ascension, separate pieces but the second is intended to follow the first so they share the same track on this CD. The first, Alleluia. Ascendit Deus, comes from King’s as refulgent Alleluias and vigorous imitation from the repeat of ‘in voce tubae’ (tr. 10, 0:48) to evoke trumpeting. At the start the second trebles dominate, the other parts tripping lightly beneath them, but the first trebles’ take-up of the seconds’ opening (0:09) should be clearer, as it is when the Alleluias return in faster antiphonal interchange (0:48) begun this time by the firsts. Durham Cathedral Choir (PRCD 801) are more clearly balanced throughout but, pitched a fourth lower, Lancelot’s lighter, smoother approach seems to me over subdued and analytical for a text that insists on jubilation. King’s is the only currently available recording of the second alleluia verse, Dominus in Sina in sancto. It’s a zippy piece. The title text starts in the lower voices to allow the sheen of King’s first trebles to burst forth in its repetition followed by rising figures for ‘ascendens in altum’ and plunging ones for ‘captivitatem’ before a bracing closing flurry of Alleluias in spiky dotted crotchet rhythms. Cleobury’s account is terrifically exuberant but at his briskness in King’s acoustic the interchange of motifs and rhythms between the parts is somewhat blurred. The only other recording, by The Cardinall’s Musick/Andrew Carwood (ASV Gaudeamus CD GAU 332, no longer available) with one voice per part, sung a fourth lower and timing a little slower at 1:09 against King’s 1:04, has more clarity without sacrificing verve.
Factus est repente, the communion motet for Whitsun, gets up a combination of crotchet, dotted crotchet and quaver rhythms to illustrate ‘spiritus vehementis’, a violent wind energetically presented by King’s whose keen rhythmic drive creates expectation. They also give due prominence to ‘spiritu sancto’ (tr. 11, 0:50) with rhythms more expansive and the vocal descents stately to show the entrance of the Holy Spirit. After this Alleluias chatter excitedly, as the vocal parts cut across one another, illustrating simultaneous statement by many voices, though not here in different languages. Stile Antico (HMU 807517) sing the piece a third higher, creating the dazzling light and flair experienced in a small gathering within a small space. King’s stun us with the clamour within a large gathering. Non vos relinquam orphanos, the Magnificat antiphon for Whitsun, is from Cleobury flowing, relaxed yet also affirmative in its unusual interchange of the Lord’s words and immediate Alleluias in response by the faithful. The literally most heart-warming final statement, ‘et gaudebit cor vestrum’ (tr. 12, 0:46) is more spirited, so Cleobury makes the following Alleluias bob around more. I like that he makes it all convivial and prefer this to the more striking account by Hereford Cathedral Choir/Geraint Bowen in 2005 (Griffin GCCD 4048). Pitched up a fourth the Alleluias and final statement are a brilliant virtuosic display, but there’s not King’s fine balance of first statement and Alleluias.
The Hymn to the Trinity, O lux beata Trinitas, grows in elaboration. It begins with every phrase proposed by 2 trebles and alto 1 parts, repeated by alto 2, tenor and bass, with a second repeat of the final line of the first verse sung by all and thereby attaining a flourishing furtherance of its fervent request. King’s approach is sunny if a bit weighty for what has a blithe aura, but also conveys a willingness to asseverate as a community. The second verse, ‘Te mane laudum carmine’ (tr. 13, 1:05) is more varied in its vocal distribution of statement and repetition and the imitation bristles from King’s at closer quarters for the final phrase, ‘Per cuncta laudet saecula’ (1:46), an ardent picture of eternal worship. The final verse, ‘Deo Patri sit gloria’ (2:15) features the first treble, alto 1 and tenor parts in canon while the other parts weave around them, at first sonorous and then celebratory as the rhythms quicken and eternal worship is again welcomed. The effect of King’s performance is more spontaneous than the structure suggests. I compared the 2015 recording by The Sixteen/Harry Christophers (Coro COR 16140). This uses 18 voices rather than King’s 32 and is a little faster, 4:10 rather than 4:32. Sung a third higher, with pearly sopranos and more lilt to the musical line the whole effect is lighter and more glowing, the first verse blithe, the close of the second verse as emphatic as King’s but with more sense of joyous gratitude, and the third verse benefitting from more apparent contrapuntal detail, such as the bass semiquavers’ flourish at ‘paraclete’ (around 3:15 on the King’s disc).
Laudibus in sanctis, Psalm150 in sonnet form, is the most jubilant of Byrd’s large motets. Cleobury’s opening, with just the 3 upper parts, is attractively fresh and when all 5 parts appear at ‘Firmamenta sonent’ there’s a great blaze of sound, gleeful quavers at ‘cantate’ and an exhilarating descending phrase, ‘saepe sonate manus’ paraded by the vocal parts in turn. Throughout the text is lustily projected. The motet’s second part, ‘Magnificum Domini’ (tr. 14, 1:00) is the time for a dotted rhythm to be spotlit, ruggedly treated here. The singing trumpets, cantet tuba’ almost bray as do the commanding acclamations of ‘Laude Dei’. The pealing organs, ‘Alti sacri resonent organa’ have an airier glow. In the third part, ‘Hunc arguta canant (2:18), singing psalteries (zithers) offer a moment of graceful movement before ‘Hunc agili laudet’ propels us into a vigorous dance, its syncopations treated more vibrantly by Cleobury than the nimbleness of foot the text celebrates. Yet there’s clear contrast between the hollow-sounding (like modern) and sweet-sounding (antique or finger) cymbals’ praise. The chorus of ‘Hallelujah canat’ is a dance-like celebration, the rhythm made clear by singing ‘Hal-le-lu-i-ya’, while ‘canat’, the physical focus on singing, streams headily through all the vocal parts until the whole pulsating scene is eased to a majestic, yet never heavy, close at ‘tempus in omne Deo’. But does Cleobury overdo the drama? I compared The Cardinall’s Musick recorded in 2006 (Hyperion CDA67568 review). Andrew Carwood uses just 5 voices, one per part, and is slightly slower, at 5:44 against Cleobury’s 5:37. His mixed upper voices opening is brighter and more eager and while the following tutti is less stunning than King’s, the closer recording maintains sonorous impact and CM’s quavers at ‘cantate’ and their ‘saepe sonate manus’ descents are no less thrilling than King’s. I prefer CM’s lighter treatment of the dotted rhythm of ‘Magnificum Domini’ and more refined, gleaming picture of the trumpets. CM’s ‘Laude Dei’ is no less riveting than King’s while the crescendo and diminuendo applied to the offbeat entries of ‘Alta’ produce a more striking euphony for their pealing organs. CM’s graceful psalteries are followed by an equally graceful dance and nimble syncopations. From the chorus of Hallelujahs CM’s pealing worship becomes increasingly ecstatic, even more than King’s, attaining another level of excitement, singing ‘lu’ as 2 notes as printed rather than King’s ‘lu-i’ aids progression, before a dignified yet still resplendent close.
The Hymn to the Blessed Sacrament, Ave verum corpus is of all Byrd’s works the most sung and recorded. It’s beautifully sung here by King’s, the opening solemn dissonance on ‘verum’ contrasting with the sunny consonance of ‘Maria’, the luxuriant descent at ‘unda fluxit sanguine’ emphasising the blood flowing from Christ’s side, as does the repetition of ‘sanguine’ in the upper voices. Yet when the frequent device of echoing the text between the parts comes at ‘in mortis’ (tr. 15, 1:27) and the text is repeated in the medius (alto) part, should one perhaps feel a little more of a pang at this reference to death’s trial? Half the hymn is taken up by the closing refrain in which a tender invocation ‘O Dulcis, O pie’ suddenly climaxes in a searing ‘O Jesu, fili Mariae’, especially in the tenor part, recognising Christ’s sacrifice. The following ‘miserere mei’ was added to the text by Byrd, making the whole expression an individual, personal quest for salvation, albeit communally witnessed. The dramatic power of this is found in King’s performance in the kick applied to the short rhythm of the second syllable, again exchanged between the parts, and the clarity of the contrapuntal texture hints at an inner turmoil.
I compared the 2016 recording by a male choir exactly the size of King’s, Jesus College Cambridge Chapel Choir/Mark Williams (Signum SIGCD 481). This is leaner, more austere and earnest in expressiveness, yet still cleanly shaped. The descent at ‘unda fluxit sanguine’ is more desolate and ‘in mortis’ piercingly recognized, while the singing here of the tebles emphasises its emotive quality. I admire King’s but I’m more moved by Jesus College Choir. Sacerdotes Domini, the offertory motet for Corpus Christi, Cleobury presents forthrightly as affirmative praise of the sanctity of priests, ending in quite sinewy rejoicing Alleluias. Lancelot/Durham Cathedral Choir (PRCD 801) offers a slightly more measured account, timing at 1:20 to Cleobury’s 1:12. This and singing a tone higher produces a more appreciative homage, makes more of Byrd’s unusually roseate melodic setting while the key alto contribution in the final Alleluia comes across more clearly.
In Iustorum animae, the setting of the Offertory for All Saints’ Day, Cleobury gives us a substantial, glowing statement of comfort. The descents and ascents mixed between the parts at ‘insipientium mori’ (tr. 17, 1:13) sound like an irritant such as might be expected of the foolish before all the parts have in turn closing descending melismas ‘in pace’ (1:58) which flow like lissom caresses in a beatific becalming. But how different does this sound with the 12 voices of The Cardinall’s Musick/Andrew Carwood recorded in 2009 (Hyperion CDA67779, review) than the 32 of King’s? CM’s recording sounds like a more secluded gathering of a small group of the faithful in which the modulations at ‘tormentum mortis’, the illusion to death’s torment, provide more of a shivering shadow but the ‘insipientium’ exchanges don’t have King’s obstreperous realism. CM’s use of sopranos makes for a more goldenly serene ‘in pace’. Curiously, though the King’s account is slightly slower, 2:44 against CM’s 2:39, it has more sense of flow whereas CM’s seems in a kind of meditative suspended animation.
O quam gloriosum, the Magnificat antiphon for All Saints’ Day, comes with animation from Cleobury in confident blazes of sound, especially when the second treble part echoes the first, beginning with the eagerness of ‘cum Christo gaudent’, the choir as saints rejoicing with Christ. What these saints sing is in the second part, ‘Benedictio, et claritas’ (tr. 18, 2:45), blessing and glory being just two of the bequests that shower forth from the different vocal parts, ending with ‘in saecula saeculorum Amen’ (3:53), a wish that this be an endless cycle of worship, the parts more closely intertwined. This ‘coda’ Cleobury presents as an assured flow before the final Amens peal forth in turn from the upper two and tenor parts in beaming elation. Lancelot/Durham Cathedral Choir (PRCD 801), taking 5:08 against King’s 5:00, a touch more measured, create a tighter structure and bring more focus on the text. In their second part the bequests are given with a warmer hearted feeling of gratitude while their ‘coda’ has a sense of awe.
Ave Maria, the alleluia verse of the Votive Mass of the B.V.M. in Advent, brings this CD full circle in the church year. After a rather austere opening in the lower voices it soon becomes fulsome in its praise, swept along by Cleobury and ending effusively with an ornate picture of a fertile womb. The brief Alleluia chorus is striking in its growing conviction as the entries are layered between the parts and, with King’s sizable body of singers, the effect is one of fervent groups in a congregation all eager to add their contributions. Stile Antico (HMU807517) have a more measured approach, timing at 2:08 to King’s 1:37. Singing a tone lower, they are reverential, warm and adoring. With clearer presentation of the counterpoint it’s more apparent how it generates the progression of the text. Their Alleluias are radiantly lambent.
To sum up, I feel Cleobury is here trailblazing for medium sized choirs a spirited, dramatic approach to performing Byrd’s motets. This emphasises the colour and sweeping manner of Titian rather than the delicacy and exquisite detail of Nicholas Hilliard. Yet ultimately Byrd’s motets require attention to both these aspects, so for me this CD is both stimulating and frustrating.
Previous review: Brian Wilson Contents Advent:Rorate coeli (Gradualia 1605) [4:15]; Vigilate (Cantiones Sacrae 1589) [4:36] Candlemas:Hodie Beata Virgo Maria (G 1605) [2:34]; Sicut audivimus: Alleluia … Senex puerum portabat a 5 (G 1605) [1:38] Lent:Ne irascaris Domine (CS 1589) [7:34] Easter:Terra tremuit (G 1607) [0:53]; Haec dies a 6 (CS 1591) [2:33] Ascension:Tollite portas (G 1605) [1:55]; Alleluia. Ascendit Deus (G 1607) [1:14]; Dominus in Sinain sancto (G 1607) [1:05] Whitsun:Factus est repente (G 1607) [1:45]; Non vos relinquam orphanos (G 1607) [1:34] Trinity:O lux beata Trinitas (CS 1575) [4:32]; Laudibus in sanctis (CS 1591) [5:36] Corpus Christi:Ave verum corpus (G 1605) [3:43]; Sacerdotes Domini (G 1605) [1:12] All Saints:Iustorum animae (G 1605) [2:44]; O quam gloriosum (CS 1589) [5:00] Blessed Virgin Mary:Ave Maria (G 1605) [1:37]