ALBUM TITLE: Byrd: The Three Masses
WORKS: Mass for five voices; Mass for four voices; Mass for three voices; Ave verum corpus
PERFORMER: The Choir of Westminster Cathedral/Martin Baker
This recording joins two great legacies: Byrd’s Masses and English Catholic choristers. Although Catholic choral foundations championed Byrd’s music from the late Victorian era, early music groups and Anglican choristers have been the chief performers of Byrd on disc. Martin Baker here boldly claims Byrd’s three Masses for the Westminster Cathedral Choir.
Baker is guided principally by the emotiveness of Byrd’s settings. The choir’s declamation is urgent, especially in first-person address (‘I look for the resurrection of the dead’). Baker’s precision matches his passion: Byrd’s points of imitation crystallise thanks to phrasing and nuanced dynamics. The tenderness of the Agnus Dei movements – achieved through reduced textures with luminous treble soloists – the conductor’s sensitivity to harmonic rhythms, and the joint musical intelligence of the choir and Baker, make this a benchmark recording.
Producer Adrian Peacock and engineer David Hinitt earn special mention. Despite the choir’s muscle and numbers, this disc’s mood is intimate. Peacock and Hinitt manipulate Westminster Cathedral’s acoustic to advantage, making climaxes gloriously resonant but vocal lines distinct. The balance between parts is particularly praiseworthy in the Mass for Five Voices.
Some Byrd devotees may object to Baker’s preference for slow tempos, and his use of rallentandos to close movements. But the power of this performance is undeniable. Forced to sing secretly, Tudor Catholics would surely have welcomed the Westminster Cathedral Choir’s full-throated expression of faith. Berta Joncus