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William BYRD (1539/40-1623)
Details after review
King’s College Choir, Cambridge/Stephen Cleobury
rec. April 2017, King’s College Chapel, Cambridge. DDD
Texts and translations included.
Reviewed as 24/96 download with pdf booklet from
KING’S COLLEGE KGS0024 [56:02]

It was from recordings made by King’s under David Willcocks that, like many others, I got to know Byrd’s music. Times and fashions may have changed, but I’m pleased to see so many of those recordings remaining in the catalogue in one form or another, though I’m surprised that the budget-price Double Decca containing the three Masses with Byrd’s English and Latin music and Taverner’s Western Wynde Mass (4521702) is available only as a download, minus the booklet, or as a Presto special 2-CD set.

The ground-breaking EMI recording on which Willcocks and King’s paired Byrd’s motets with those of his continental contemporaries is hanging on by its fingertips as a Classics for Pleasure download (5860482, around 5 in mp3, 6 in lossless, no booklet). Still available on CD and at super-budget price, the 1960 Willcocks recordings of the Five-part Mass, Magnificat and Nunc Dimitis from the Great Service, with music by Orlando Gibbons (Alto ALC1182). Despite my reservations in reviewing another King’s CD of music by Taverner and Gibbons (ALC1183), both remain valuable reminders of David Willcocks’ pioneering work.

More recently, the baton in performing the music of Byrd, his predecessors and contemporaries, has passed from cathedral and collegiate choirs to professional, mostly mixed-voice, groups such as The Cardinall’s Musick, whose complete recordings of Byrd, begun with the ASV label and completed by Hyperion all received high praise in these quarters.

First-rate as those recordings are, I was pleased to see Hyperion giving a crack of the whip to Westminster Cathedral Choir under Martin Baker on a CD of the three Masses and Ave verum corpus (CDA68038 – review). In many respects, that could easily be my Desert Island choice in a very competitive field for the Masses.

On the new CD King’s give us two pieces for each of the times of the church year: Advent, Candlemas, Lent, Easter, Ascension, Whitsun, Trinity, Corpus Christi and All Saints, together with one motet for the Blessed Virgin Mary. The omission of the Nativity is more than understandable, when King’s and their many recordings have become almost synonymous with Christmas.

A pre-Willocks recording of Byrd’s Easter motet Hc Dies is preserved on An Easter Mattins on which Boris Ord directs the choir – download, or stream from Naxos Music Library. We may expect it to sound stodgy by comparison with the new recording but the joy of Easter shines through the dated 60-year-old sound and Ord is only seconds slower than Cleobury and very slightly less bouncy. Both use the 6-part setting from Cantiones sacr, not the slightly shorter 5-part one from the Gradualia, so the comparison is instructive – and chastening to those of us who automatically expect 2018 releases to be superior to those of 60 years ago.

A recording from the Willcocks era on the CfP album mentioned above, which opens with the 5-part Hc Dies, is actually more deliberate than either the older or newer recording of the 6-part version but sounds surprisingly agile by comparison with the 6-part Palestrina setting with which it’s paired.

The Willcocks recording of Ave verum corpus on that recording sounds very measured indeed by comparison with the new recording. It could be argued that this is a very reverential piece and demands serious treatment, and it receives a similarly reverential treatment from Martin Baker at Westminster Cathedral. Cleobury takes it a whole minute faster then Baker, which you might expect to sound perfunctory, but it doesn’t: I actually liked this brisker version at least as much as the alternatives.

The new recording of O quam gloriosum is slightly brisker than on the 1964 Willcocks paired motets album, though that is far from superseded and remains of great value as illustrating the dialogue between Byrd and his contemporaries. To the best of my knowledge, no other recording has ever attempted such a comparison.

Iustorum anim – for All Saints’ Day – is included on a Nimbus recording of the Five-part Mass from Christ Church Choir, Oxford, directed by Stephen Darlington (NI5237 – review). As with Ave verum, Cleobury is a little less measured in this piece but without missing the reverential atmosphere. That Nimbus recording, which sets the Five-part Mass within the context of the service for All Saints, also includes Laudibus in sanctis. I’m on record as recommending that and other Christ Church recordings, but in this case King’s and Cleobury are much more successful than Darlington’s team in bringing this joyful piece to life.

Mark Williams directs Jesus College Choir, Cambridge, in this piece on a collection of music by Byrd and Britten (Signum SIGCD481 – review: unfortunately omitted from the index). They are a trifle faster still than King’s and Cleobury, but no more successful in capturing the elation of the music. In fact, I think them a little less joyful, but that’s only if you set one immediately against the other, Building a Library fashion. Take each on its own and all three recordings of this piece are very effective.

The other King’s College Choir (London) open a programme on Delphian with Laudibus in sanctis (DCD34146). It’s another sprightly and very creditable performance, which I enjoyed and which merited John Quinn’s praise – review.

Of making comparisons there is no end and too many can be a weariness of the flesh. What the few comparisons which I’ve attempted prove is that the new King’s recording compares well both with earlier King’s recordings and with other cathedral and collegiate choirs. Where I prefer another recording, it’s only marginal, and mostly the new version comes out top or is very close to topping the list.

The music of the English composers of the earlier renaissance may appeal with its more spectacular vocal gymnastics, but Byrd’s music with its slightly plainer style, like the later music of his mentor Tallis, has its own appeal in performances of this quality. Mentioning Tallis leads me to note that it’s some time since King’s gave us a recording devoted to his music: the Willcocks-era Double Decca sets are now download only. A remake might be the perfect end to the Cleobury era. Perhaps, too, they might give us another recording of Byrd’s Great Service: the recording which they made for EMI Reflexe with Cleobury in the 1980s seems to have disappeared from the catalogue.

The recording, too, is at least as good as any of the rivals, especially in 24/96 download format. At one time, King’s chapel was the bte-noir of recording engineers and I’ve noticed some balance problems even on some of their recent releases, but the present recording is very successful.

One anomaly in the otherwise informative booklet appears to have escaped the proof-readers: Bancroft was never Archbishop of London – there never was such a thing; London is merely a bishopric. The 1958 LP sleeve, showing the main door of King’s Chapel, is vastly more interesting than the old chest on the front of the new album.

This latest in the series of King’s recordings on their own label is very successful and would make as wonderful an introduction to Byrd as the Willcocks LPs did in their day. I just wonder why we couldn’t have had a little more music than the 56 minutes offered here. In omitting comparisons with recordings by mixed-voice professional groups I certainly don’t mean to rule out their contribution. The Tallis Scholars’ 2-CDs-for-1 of Byrd’s music would make a very fine complementary introduction to his music. Its inclusion of his three masses and the English Great Service makes it complementary to the new King’s (Gimell CDGIM208, also available to download with pdf booklet from

Brian Wilson

Rorate caeli [4:15]
Vigilate (from Cantiones sacrae 1589) [4:36]
Hodie beata virgo [2:34]
Senex puerum portabat a 5 (Gradualia 1605) [1:38]
Ne irascaris Domine [3:35]
Civitas Sancti Tui [3:58]
Terra tremuit [0:53]
Haec dies a 6 (Cantiones Sacrae 1591) [2:33]
Tollite portas [1:55]
Dominus in Sina in sancto [2:23]
Factus est repente [1:45]
Non vos relinquam [1:34]
O Lux beata Trinitas [4:32]
Laudibus in sanctis [5:36]
Ave verum Corpus [3:42]
Sacerdotes Domini (from Gradualia 1607) [1:12]
Iustorum animae [2:44]
O quam gloriosum est regnum [5:00]
Ave Maria [1:37]



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