BYRD Infelix ego
Penitence might be the prevailing theme on this disc but there’s nothing penitential in the experience of this exquisite recording.
Herreweghe pairs Byrd’s Mass for Five Voices and large-scale motet Infelix ego with works by Ferrabosco and de Monte – a trio of composers all united, as Andrew Carwood’s booklet-notes remind us, by their Catholic faith. The result is a serious addition to the many fine recordings of this repertoire already available – not least Stile Antico’s ‘Phoenix Rising’ (Harmonia Mundi, 9/13) and Carwood’s own Byrd Edition with The Cardinall’s Musick, whose last volume (Hyperion, 4/10) was Gramophone Recording of the Year in 2010.
The big draw here is Infelix ego – Byrd’s austerely beautiful setting of Savonarola’s meditation on the Miserere, written while the friar suffered torture at the hands of the Florentine authorities. While The Cardinall’s Musick spend themselves almost too soon, so urgent is their musical drama, Herreweghe’s singers do more with less, their restraint charged with repressed intensity. Precise tuning and blend support tone so straight it would expose the slightest deviation, vocal simplicity allowing Byrd’s craggy lines to speak directly.
Speeds within the Mass are unusually fast, a little too fast perhaps, clouding details like the delicate syncopation of the Gloria, but there’s no faulting the fluidity of phrasing. This is a contemporary performance – full forces, mixed voices – that might lack the intimacy of the all-male Cardinall’s Musick recording but has a dynamism and clarity of tone that compares favourably with Stile Antico, The Tallis Scholars (Gimell, 5/84) or the rather more pastel-coloured Sixteen (Virgin, 1/91). The de Monte and Ferrabosco works are a bonus, offering a harmonic and textural richness that offsets the austerity of the Byrd we hear here. Musical penitence has rarely been so pleasurable.