WORKS: Masses for Four & Five Voices; Motets
PERFORMER: The Sixteen/Harry Christophers
CATALOGUE NO: VBD 5 62013 2 Reissue (1989, 1990)
There is one very special track on this two-CD set, so special that I could listen to it all day. The massive eight-voice motet Ad Dominum cum tribularer, written by a fledgling and still impressionable William Byrd, is rarely met on disc or in the concert hall. I got to know it in the Seventies through powerful, relentless, densely packed performances by that pioneering early-music choir, the Clerkes of Oxenford. Those performances evidently made an impact on Harry Christophers, who sang with the Clerkes in his student days. His own recording of the piece with The Sixteen shows how deeply the experience sank in, for the performance penetrates to the very heart of the work. It is simply glorious.
Otherwise this set gives you mostly late Byrd: the Masses for Four and Five Voices, and Gradualia motets for All Saints and the feasts of St Peter and St Paul. To my ears those works sound better sung by solo voices or a tiny choir, not in manicured choral interpretations with a conductor in charge. (Certainly Christophers shapes the music more than some would wish, resulting in a few Brucknerian moments.) Also included is the extraordinary pair of eight-voice motets exchanged between Byrd and Philippe de Monte. Monte’s Super flumina Babylonis is nobly sung, but an upbeat tempo doesn’t seem quite apt for Byrd’s reply, Quomodo cantabimus. Some of these pieces have now been issued in the projected complete Byrd cycle sung by The Cardinall’s Musick (ASV Gaudeamus), and in almost every case I prefer them. But that doesn’t extend to Ad Dominum, for which The Sixteen has no peers. By the way, the booklet gives neither texts nor translations – a sorry omission. John Milsom