Byrd: Propers for Ascension, Pentecost & Corpus Christi; Devotions to the Blessed Sacrament

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LABELS: Gaudeamus
ALBUM TITLE: O sacrum convivium
WORKS: Propers for Ascension, Pentecost & Corpus Christi; Devotions to the Blessed Sacrament
PERFORMER: The Cardinall’s Musick/Andrew Carwood
In this, the ninth release of its ‘collected Byrd’ series, The Cardinall’s Musick celebrates the composer’s final masterpieces in a blaze of nuanced, intelligent and daring polyphonic singing. For many Byrd aficionados, these settings of a Catholic rite – published after authorities had labelled the composer a recusant for failing to attend Church of England services – constitute his most eloquent statement of faith. Byrd aimed seemingly to proselytise through music: his precisely interlocked contrasts – counterpoint versus homophony, broad versus narrow range, arching phrases versus syllabic fragments – all but convert the listener through the fluidity of their transformations and the power of their motifs. This fervour and sophistication play directly to the strengths of The Cardinall’s Musick. With just one (male) voice to a part, each singer can enrich the meaning of shared motifs as they move between voices. The recording’s acoustic preserves each individual’s characteristic timbre, strengthening the impact of a soloist’s reading. Where lines converge, tensions between voices dissolve gloriously into a glassy surface of sound. The percussive impact of consonants is played up for a madrigal-style delivery of emotionally charged texts. The balance, which critics have found top-heavy in earlier discs from this series, is judiciously adjusted to highlight specific lines for dramatic effect. The intimacy of this interpretation may jar those used to a larger-scale choral Byrd. Granted, this ensemble can never recapture the spaciousness and grandeur of a performance such as that of the Winchester Cathedral Choir under David Hill. The reduced voices, lower pitching and compact venue of The Cardinall’s Musick impose a specific approach. Yet such parameters also release Byrd’s music from the tight discipline and sometimes exaggerated tempos of Hill’s recording. The Cardinall’s Musick rediscovers in Byrd the voice of a lone, defiant genius. Berta Joncus