Byrd: Mass for Five Voices, with Propers for the Feast of Corpus Christi

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COMPOSERS: Byrd
LABELS: Hyperion
WORKS: Mass for Five Voices, with Propers for the Feast of Corpus Christi
PERFORMER: Winchester Cathedral Choir/David Hill
CATALOGUE NO: CDA 66837
I am in two minds about this recording. I love the sound of the English cathedral choir at its best. And under David Hill, Winchester Cathedral Choir is certainly that. The music, of course, is outstanding – Byrd’s Mass for Five Voices, supplemented by a clutch of liturgical pieces and motets proper to the feast of Corpus Christi. But, although cathedral choirs have long been singing Byrd’s masses quite happily, there is a case for saying that medium and music do not match. Byrd’s Masses were designed in all likelihood for singing by small groups of recusant Catholics behind closed doors in the private chapels of the nobility, not by full choirs of men and boys. The music, devout, intimate, and highly personal, reflects that consideration.

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But cathedral choirs have a perfect right to sing the work, and the good men and boys of Winchester deliver a positive, bright-toned performance, though even from a choir of such numbers one might sometimes expect more fluid, sensual phrasing. The same applies to the motets. Some of the brighter numbers, like ‘Cibavit eos’, seem a little breathless. Byrd’s denser textures are notoriosuly difficult to bring off. And the opening ‘Ego sum panis vivus’ demands an elegance and spontaneity that this choir can’t quite deliver. Or perhaps the problem is mine, and I have been spoilt by all those adult chamber groups who these days sing such music so well. Stephen Pettitt