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William BYRD (1539/40-1623)
Singing in Secret - Clandestine Catholic Music
Miserere mei [3:04]
Gaudeamus omnes [6:10]
Mass for Four Voices – Kyrie [2:00]
Mass for Four Voices – Gloria [5:54]
Timete Dominum [4:28]
Mass for Four Voices – Credo [8:12]
Ave Maria [1:58]
Laetentur caeli [3:34]
Mass for Four Voices – Sanctus and Benedictus [3:40]
Justorum animae [2:29]
Mass for Four Voices – Agnus Dei [2:57]
Deo gratias [0:41]
Beati mundo corde [3:01]
Infelix ego [13:02]
The Marian Consort/Rory McCleery
rec. 2019, Crichton Collegiate Church, Midlothian, UK
Latin texts and English translations included
DELPHIAN DCD34230 [60:14]

This is a most thoughtfully conceived programme. As the album title indicates, all the music was written by Byrd, a Catholic recusant himself, for use at clandestine celebrations of the Mass by Catholics during the last couple of decades of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603). This was a time of great danger for those in England who continued to practice the Roman Catholic faith, their adherence to which could and often did cost them their lives. Byrd himself managed to escape persecution, probably because he was a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal and a favourite of the Queen

Two musical themes run through this programme like intertwining spines: the Mass for Four Voices and music for the Proper of the Feast of All Saints. Into that latter category come Gaudeamus omnes, Timete Dominum, Justorum animae and Beati mundo corde. These pieces are positioned in the programme at the point where they would have been sung during a celebration of Mass, though arguably Timete Dominum, an Offertory antiphon, ought to precede the Sanctus. That, however, is a minor detail.

These four items from the Proper of the Mass are discerningly chosen – and I like the fact that items from the Proper of just one feast have been chosen; that adds cohesion. The Introit Gaudeamus omnes (SSATB) is a buoyant piece, which offers a fine musical contrast to the penitential piece that precedes it here. The present performance is full-throated and joyful and I couldn’t help but reflect as I listened that this is music that would have needed to be sung in the chapel of a remote country house; otherwise singing of this ebullience would probably draw unwelcome attention. The Gradual and Alleluia, Timete Dominum, scored for the same five voices, is a much more pensive piece, at least until the Alleluia is reached. In his notes Rory McCleery very rightly describes Justorum animae as “beautifully serene”. He’s referring to the music, of course, but the description fits just as well the Marian Consort’s performance.

For the Mass, McCleery opts to have two singers to each part – elsewhere in the programme single voices sustain each vocal line. This decision results in fuller textures, which I like – though the one-voice-per-part performances are no less satisfying. The performance of the Mass is a very fine one. In the Gloria one is struck time and again by the way in which Byrd uses the different vocal colours of each of his four voices to marvellous effect. McCleery’s singers bring this out expertly. In this movement, the singing becomes increasingly fervent towards the end, building to a conclusion which I can only describe as inspiring. In the notes, Rory McCleery draws attention to the music’s lineage back to John Taverner. It seems to me that this connection comes across very strongly at the start of the Credo where Byrd’s invention is frankly flamboyant. At ‘Qui propter nos homines’ the music becomes calmer and somewhat more inward looking, but from ‘Et resurrexit’ onwards the music is once again extrovert. I noted in particular how the sopranos attack joyfully the rising phrase at ‘Et ascendit’ and their colleagues follow their example when they too have that phrase to sing. This is, quite simply, an exciting account of the Credo. I found it very interesting to compare the Marian Consort with the very fine recording by The Tallis Scholars on Gimell (review). One might think that the Gimell performance isn’t as fervent but, actually I don’t believe that’s the case. There’s just as much character and excitement in the Tallis Scholars’ performance: the real difference between the two is that Paul Baxter has opted for a closer balance on the new Delphian recording and this means the singing of the Marian Consort reaches the listener with even greater impact; the excellent Gimell sound puts a bit more distance between the performers and the listener. The remaining sections of the Mass are just as well done by the Marian Consort; their account of the Agnus Dei is very refined. After the Agnus, Rory McCleery add the little setting, also in four parts, of Deo Gracias.

This programme is perceptively bookended by pièces that use Psalm 51, the Miserere, as their foundation. Miserere mei (SATBB) is a wonderful setting of the first verse of the Psalm. It’s ideally positioned here as the penitential rite, if you will, at the beginning of Mass. The performance evidences perfect equilibrium between the vocal parts and expertly sustained lines. At the end of the programme comes the masterly Infelix ego (SATTBB). In this piece Byrd set the text reflecting on Psalm 51 which was written by Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498) while he was in prison awaiting execution. Byrd’s music is highly expressive and constitutes an acute response to the text. The Marian Consort sing it superbly.

This is a wonderful programme of religious music by William Byrd. Everything is sung with meticulous attention to detail and flawless ensemble and tuning. But let me not give the impression that these performances are mere exercises in studied perfection. On the contrary, the singing is full of feeling and spirit. Rory McCleery and his ensemble seem completely attuned to Byrd’s music and thoughts.

The recording is excellent. Earlier, I said that the balance is closer than on the Gimell recording. That’s true, but the balance is in no way oppressive. Instead Paul Baxter has presented the performances with presence, clarity and impact. Excellent documentation sets the seal on this highly impressive release.

John Quinn

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