Byrd Masses

Author: 
Tess Knighton

Byrd Masses

  • Mass for three voices
  • Mass for four voices
  • Mass for five voices
  • Mass for three voices
  • Mass for four voices
  • Mass for five voices

In this recording of Byrd's Masses, the Choir of Winchester Cathedral has gone, like The Tallis Scholars on Gimell, for completeness, rather than the semi-reconstructed feast approach of The Sixteen for Virgin Classics and the Christ Church Cathedral Choir, Oxford (see above). What this automatically means is that the listener can compare Byrd's three settings as hermetic pieces, all tautly constructed but with a subtly different use of texture according to the number of voices involved. If my comments on the Anglican cathedral tradition made with respect to the Oxford choir are to hold up to scrutiny, then this recording (again made in a resonant acoustic—the Cathedral itself) should not be sound worlds away from its companion. And it is not, though the basic sound is rather mellower, with a more focused tone from the boys and a more covered sound from the basses. It would probably be fair to say that Stephen Darlington had better basic material (voice per voice) at his disposal in Oxford than David Hill in Winchester, but the difference in interpretative approach makes this recording infinitely more satisfying in my opinion. Actually, the Christ Church version compares more closely to The Sixteen in this respect, while Winchester pair more nearly with The Tallis Scholars, though even Phillips does not sculpt the vocal lines as finely as Hill.
'Interpretation' is still a matter for debate in the field of Renaissance polyphony (indeed, as regards 'early music' in general), and there will be some who will reject Hill's speedings up of certain passages of the Gloria and Credo, his allargandos at major cadences and his moulding of the vocal line through dynamic and phrasing as 'inauthentic'. So often it is this, the very stuff of the interpretation of music from this period that remains outside accumulated musicological knowledge and is therefore either conveniently forgotten about (because we don't know) or deliberately disparaged (because certain people think they do). Yet even if Byrd never directed his Masses as Hill does here, the experience is such a musical one that it cannot be ignored. Despite the odd patchiness in tone, the Choir responds fully to his demands, seeking out the beauties of the music (no more so than in the Agnus Dei of the four-voice Mass, perhaps the most sublime passage of all) and complying to his sometimes overtly dramatic pacing. This recording, on the newly-revamped Argo label, represents quite an achievement.'

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