Byrd The Great Service in the Chapel Royal
William Byrd’s Great Service was a game-changer, staking out how lavish an Anglican rite could be. Celebrating Byrd’s vision, Musica Contexta folds cornetts and sackbuts into the standard texture of a double five-part choir with organ. Evidence richly supports this disposition of forces. The choir’s use of ‘period pronouncement’ uses historical practice to further de-familiarise Byrd’s masterpiece of c1600 in fascinating ways.
Novelties cannot, however, hide this disc’s many wobbly solos, particularly as movements open. The choir’s often-delightful animation of the text is less so when it causes singers to override musical sense, as in ‘O Lord make thy servant Elizabeth’, where the singers clip words to stress syllables but also dissolve the melodic syntax. The recording quality is also sub-optimal: sibilants intrude, the balance between voice and wind band teeters awkwardly, and the venue’s lively acoustic slips studio control in fortissimo passages.
The exuberance of The English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble to some extent compensates for these weaknesses. When the wind band doubles the singers, declamation flows more naturally, and a sense of expressiveness expands as textures swell. Some contrasts between instruments and choir are shrewdly calculated. Interpolated instrumental ‘preludes’ – additions again backed up by scholarship – are a brilliant counterfoil to the choir’s brisk homophony. Steven Devine’s organ solos leaven sombre moments, his rhetorical flourishes being particularly persuasive in Byrd’s Prelude in C, which is inserted into the Communion.
This is a Great Service of great innovation, but one which lacks the vocal and technical consistency of established Byrd interpretations.