Byrd: Motets

Choir of King’s College Cambridge/Stephen Cleobury (
King’s College)

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CD_KGS0024_Byrd_cmyk

Byrd Motets
Choir of King’s College Cambridge/Stephen Cleobury
King’s College KGS 0024 56:12 mins

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The choir of King’s College, Cambridge had been singing divine service for well over a century when William Byrd assumed his first major post at Lincoln Cathedral around 1563, and his music is woven through the choir’s lengthy discography including recordings of the Masses under Sir David Willcocks. Those landmarks already spoken for, Stephen Cleobury stakes his claim on a clutch of Latin motets artfully arranged to chart the onward march of the liturgical year.

It’s a neat idea, though not without some musical drawbacks. By the time four feisty motets have signalled Advent and Candlemas, a little Lenten soul-searching is long overdue; and Easter through Ascension to Whitsun slaloms through a similarly bracing trajectory. Perhaps some of it is exacerbated by Cleobury’s often driven direction – as if to distance himself from the Willcocks tradition. Rorate caeli unleashes not so much a wave of sound as a tsunami. The textures sound congested though, and the beseeching text metamorphoses into an urgent command. (Laudibus in sanctis, it must be said, musters a more cogent immediacy.)

Rather too often the application of a broad brush blunts Byrd’s expressive intentions, so that the latter stages of Ave verum never quite elicit the plaintiveness wrapped around the repeating ‘misereres’; and when the choral scholars alone tackle Ne irascaris, Domine/Civitas sancti tui, while the burnished bottom-heavy opening trembles with penitence, the heartrending lament for Jerusalem doesn’t get past the notes to nail Byrd’s subtext bemoaning the plight of Catholicism in a Protestant land.

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Paul Riley