Byrd: Second Service; Consort Anthems

COMPOSERS: Byrd
LABELS: Harmonia Mundi
ALBUM TITLE: Byrd
WORKS: Second Service; Consort Anthems
PERFORMER: Stefan Roberts (treble), Rogers Covey-Crump (tenor); Choir of Magdalen College, Oxford; Fretwork/Bill Ives
CATALOGUE NO: HMU 907440
This disc is a benchmark – of interpretation, scholarship and programming. The interpretation and dramatic re-contextualization of Byrd’s music presented here make even the utterly familiar,

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for instance ‘O Lord make thy servant Elizabeth’, startlingly different. Re-contextualization

is achieved by having viols replace the organ in liturgical music, and by programming domestic with church composition.

That domestic and sacred music-making merged in Byrd’s writing is in fact the guiding conviction of this recording. Characteristic of his genius was a facility for combining the beguilingly intimate with the grand. The use of soloists with choir in the verse anthems, the alteration of simple (homophonic) and complex (imitative) writing in the anthems, and the underpinning of soloist with rich counterpoint in psalm settings create a sense of vertigo. Traversing the terrain of the most personal, one suddenly stands on the brink of the monumental. For this reason, using a viol consort – normally the reserve of domestic music-making – to accompany the choir makes perfect sense. Placing domestic sacred song alongside liturgical music highlights how similar was Byrd’s approach to both facets of his output.

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But it is above all the conviction of the performance – its flawless ensemble, radiant boy trebles and sensitivity to implied rhetoric – that carries the argument. Rogers Covey-Crump’s creamy colour imbues solo passages with a secular feel, as does the confidence of Stefan Roberts’s delivery. Fretwork has rarely played more passionately or with greater refinement. The conceits of imagination in Byrd’s keyboard fantasias prove a wellspring for Leonard’s readings. Meticulousness of engineering and research inform all aspects of this disc’s production. Here is a recording whose ingenuity approaches that of the composer it celebrates. Berta Joncus