Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Byrd; Parsons; White
ALBUM TITLE: Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang
WORKS: Byrd: Christe qui lux et dies; Domine, quis habitabit; Quomodo cantabimus; De lamentation; White: Lamentations a 5; Christe qui lux; Parsons: Ave Maria; Domine, quis habitabit
PERFORMER: Magnificat/Philip Cave


Tensions between the Catholic and Protestant churches generated some of Tudor England’s finest polyphony. Tolerated even while officially banned, Latin settings in England signalled loyalty to traditions that the new generation represented on this disc had to re-invent. Sonic splendour abounds in the Magnificat choir’s performance of this repertory.

Byrd’s eight-part Quomodo cantabimus unfurls majestically, ravishing the ear. In White’s enormous five-part Lamentations, the choir lingers at just the right places. The subtle hues of the choir, an elite corps from Winchester and Westminster cathedrals, are particularly impressive in Byrd’s Lamentation, a piece in which voicing gives the music
its momentum.

Yet the beauty of this choir is, ironically, its greatest weakness. Too often, crunches and natural declamation are sacrificed to effulgence. This repertory needs edge, even ugliness, to reach its full impact. Where is the pungency of the dissonant false relation that opens and threads through Byrd’s Quomodo cantabimus? This is, after all, the recusant Byrd’s protest, yoked to the psalm’s lament, ‘How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?’ The Magnificat choir’s soaring line passes over this and other moments of carefully plotted rule-breaking. Cave’s slow tempos, while showing off vocal control, erase organic word-to-note relations, particularly in the plainchant. Structure, such as the syllabic stress in Byrd’s Christe qui lux es et dies, often gets buried; I struggled to hear the bass-alto canon in Quomodo cantabimus. This opacity is due not to sound production, which is impeccable, but to singing which isn’t always responsive to this music’s rugged features.


Berta Joncus