Byrd The Great Service
No one knows the exact date or circumstance of the composition of Byrd’s Great Service. Too elaborate for the composer’s years at Lincoln Cathedral between 1563 and 1572, it is assumed to be a sort of private farewell to the Chapel Royal – maybe even, according to Andrew Carwood, an apology to the Queen whose Protestant faith Byrd could not embrace. Certainly, it was intended for sophisticated ears. For all the grandeur of its two five-part choirs, the tone is intellectually rigorous, emotionally restrained. Only in the Kyrie does Byrd recapture the plain-speaking quality of his early Anglican music. Elsewhere, it is almost as if the iteration and reiteration of the text were subservient to the manipulation of light and shade across a canvas.
Pitched between the austerity of The Tallis Scholars’ a capella recording and the flamboyance of Musica Contexta’s recent accompanied disc, Carwood employs a single organ as accompaniment. The singing is neat, clear and fluid, with beautifully elastic phrasing from the two tenors. The Nunc Dimittis provides the sweetest moments in the Great Service itself, while the unaccompanied anthems Praise our Lord and Make ye joy are atypically blowsy. Having traced Byrd’s Latin masses and motets across 13 volumes, The Cardinall’s Musick need time to adjust to the more discreet charms of his English music and so, perhaps, do we.