BYRD The Three Masses
Recordings of Byrd’s three Masses are so numerous that comparisons with this one are best limited to recordings with comparable forces. To my knowledge it’s been more than 20 years since they were last recorded as a set with boy trebles. The Choir of Westminster Cathedral’s approach is placid but not overly reverential: the longer-texted movements are formally clear and energetic where required. In comparison with the accounts from Christ Church and Winchester Cathedrals, the treatment of tempi is relatively unobtrusive, notwithstanding the usual shifts at ‘Quoniam tu solus’ in the Glorias and ‘Et resurrexit’ in the Credos. The choir is perhaps heard to best effect in the more tranquil later movements, the Agnus Deis in particular: the use of solo voices at the beginning of the five-voice one is an effective touch. For the three-voice Mass the top voice is taken by a well-blended combination of boy altos and countertenors, making this the most distinctive interpretation of the three.
In previous reviews of this choir I’ve remarked on the spacious recorded sound. Here it compounds the one feature I’d fault: the lower voices sport a wider vibrato than the upper (the basses especially so), clouding the texture in fully scored and faster passages, such as the endings of the longer movements. Moreover, when the basses rise above their clef they are inclined to shout, which proves a distraction on repeated listening. The trebles are as bright as the sound image permits but in the concluding Ave verum they are not only perfectly clear but poignantly plangent.