Byrd: Gradualia (1607)

Our rating 
3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

COMPOSERS: Byrd
LABELS: Musica Omnia
WORKS: Gradualia (1607)
PERFORMER: Ensemble Plus Ultra/Michael Noone; Robert Quinney (organ)
CATALOGUE NO: MO 0302

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Why more Byrd? Specifically, why more of Byrd’s 1607 Gradualia? This work, with its 109 settings of Catholic Mass Propers, demands revisiting because it contains some of Byrd’s most heartfelt statements of faith. Out of deepest conviction comes unsurpassed compositional virtuosity. Given the grisly deaths inflicted on Catholics after the 1605 Gunpowder Plot, Byrd’s courage in realising this project is awe-inspiring.

This disc transports us back to the defiant commitment of Catholic worship under siege. Warm, intimate singing, interleaved organ fantasias, and the inclusion of ‘Why do I use my paper, ink and pen?’ – a lament at the Jesuit Edmund Campion’s bloody execution – coalesce into a musical representation of solace through faith.

Byrd’s ingenuity is elegantly captured, particularly in the motets for six voices, where the vocalists’ crispness of entries brilliantly illuminates relations between lines. Michael Noone’s pacing of dynamics is flawless, as is his paragraphing.

Clear sound production – the microphones are positioned according to each movement’s structure – supports that of the performance, a tribute to the new musician-run label Musica Omnia.

However, my quibble about this disc is its polish: suggestions of despair tend to fade within urbane delivery. I miss the raw longing found, for instance, in Cardinall’s Musick’s performance of ‘Quodcumque ligaveris’. Whereas the fervour of the singers in Cardinall’s Musick can destabilise their technique, such moments never occur here.

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Some may prefer a recording such as this in which precision highlights the music’s architecture; those who look for an intensity that matches that of the work itself may find this reading flat. Berta Joncus