This new recording of the three Byrd Masses, the fifth release in The Byrd Edition from The Cardinall’s Musick, is no mere umpteenth volume of the dry-as-dust ‘collected works’ of some obscure composer of a past century. It is a vibrant programme, in its own right, of incomparable music by one of the greatest English composers. Each of the three Masses is prefaced by a delightful rendering of one of the Byrd fantasias. A span of some 40 years separates this new release from an earlier complete set of the three Masses: the superb performances by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge under David Willcocks (1959 and 1963, remastered for reissue on CD in 1992). Since then, several choirs have recorded individual Masses, among them the Dutch ensemble Quink (the four-part Mass, in 1985), The Sixteen under Harry Christophers (the four-part Mass, in 1989 – 1/91, nla – and the five-part Mass, in 1988), and Winchester Cathedral Choir under David Hill (the five-part Mass, in 1995), but, to my knowledge, only the Tallis Scholars have recorded all three (1984) on a CD currently not generally available. It was high time for someone to take a fresh look at these works in the light of more recent research and of changing attitudes to performance practice.
Byrd had composed his three settings of the Ordinary of the Mass in troubled times for the small recusant Catholic community that still remained in England in spite of persecution. The settings would have been sung, in all probability, during festive, albeit furtive, celebrations of the old time-honoured Roman liturgy, in private chapels in the depths of the country, at places such as Ingatestone, the seat of Byrd’s principal patron, Sir John Petre. Andrew Carwood has recorded them in the Fitzalan Chapel of Arundel Castle, a small but lofty building with a clear resonance that enables the inner voices of the part-writing to come through straight and clean. It hasn’t the aura of King’s College Chapel, but is probably easier to manage than, for example, Winchester Cathedral for the Hill recording or Merton College Chapel for the Philips. It is fascinating to compare the different approaches of these various choirs. Carwood uses two voices to a part in all three Masses. He is alone in selecting high voices for the three-part Mass, transposed up a minor third, which introduces a note of surprising lightness and grace. He, too, is alone in taking the initiative of using an all-male choir for the four-part Mass – alto, tenor, baritone, bass. This close, low texture, together with the transposition down an augmented fourth, adds a fitting sense of gravity to the performance. In particular, it heightens the poignancy of such passages as the ‘dona nobis pacem’ in the Agnus Dei, with its series of suspensions in the drooping phrases leading to the final cadence. This is a world away from the slick performance of Quink, who canter here like young colts to the last chord without a trace of emotion, every note precisely in its place, with a perfect blend and utter clarity, but missing entirely one essential dimension: an understanding of what it all means and in what context it was composed. The Sixteen, like The Cardinall’s Musick, achieve a sense of gravity at this same point in the four-part Mass by a well-calculated tempo. The Tallis Scholars perform musically, with near perfection, but generate less feeling for the sense of the text. King’s flow into every phrase of each Mass – in particular those of this passage in the four-part Mass – with consummate art and beauty, rising to a climax and then sinking gently to a close.
That dimension of understanding, however, is precisely what this new recording by The Cardinall’s Musick seems to demonstrate. Theirs is a simplicity of style that belies simplistic criticism. Vibrato is used sparingly: 40 years on, some listeners might consider the constant use of it by a King’s Choir of the late 1950s almost too overpowering. Carwood chooses his tempos with care, avoiding the modern tendency to speed everything up inordinately. Hill, with his huge Winchester Cathedral choir, occasionally succumbs to the temptation. But Hill, like Christophers, had the excellent idea of interspersing pieces of the Proper from Byrd’s