Byrd: Masses for Three, Four & Five Voices

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LABELS: Harmonia Mundi
WORKS: Masses for Three, Four & Five Voices
PERFORMER: Pro Arte Singers/Paul Hillier
William Byrd defiantly refused to convert to the state church throughout his long life. While paying lip service to Anglicanism as a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal, he continued to set Roman liturgical texts that vigorously confirmed both his musical genius and his Catholic faith. The recorded versions of the three Masses by Andrew Carwood and The Cardinall’s Musick (Byrd Edition 7) are remarkable for their powerful expressive concentration, no doubt inspired by the especially apt surroundings of the Fitzalan Chapel at Arundel Castle.


Paul Hillier and the Pro Arte Singers perform with comparable poise and sensitivity, and their generally lively approach robustly communicates this music’s firm religious conviction. They negotiate the complex polyphony in the four-voice setting with impressive agility and taut rhythms, culminating with haunting overlapping phrases at the end of the Agnus Dei. A vivid recording presents the contrapuntal detail in bright clarity. By contrast, warmer acoustics highlight the deliciously honeyed tone of Carwood’s ensemble, whose rendering of the three-part Mass for upper voices is more convincing than Pro Arte’s rather sombre disposition for the lower parts.


Pro Arte tends to favour quicker tempi than its rivals, creating an infectious dance-like rhythmic vitality in the Gloria of the five-part Mass. The description of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection in the Credo from the same work, however, calls for more dramatic intensity. Here, the richer emotional variety offered by The Cardinall’s Musick – not to mention its smoother serenity in the Agnus Dei – makes a deeper and more moving spiritual impression. Nicholas Rast