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The Cardinall's Musick
sings William Byrd -
recommended by

'... the scholarship in the set is impressive ...'

William Byrd: Hodie Simon Petrus. © 2009 Hyperion Records Ltd

The Cardinall's Musick has reached volume 11 of its impressive Byrd Edition. Like volume 10, this volume has appeared on the Hyperion label, the previous volumes having appeared on the Gaudeamus label. Volume 10 appeared in 2006 and volume 9 some years before this, so it is something of a relief to find that the group is still continuing with this project.

Byrd's two volumes of Gradualia, which contain his settings of the propers of the mass, present something of a problem for CD compilers. Byrd's motets are not designed to form larger scale structures, but to be scattered throughout a service. On this disc director Andrew Carwood's solution is to take the Propers for the Feast of St Peter and St Paul from Byrd's 1607 volume of Gradualia and intersperse them with motets from the 1591 Cantiones Sacrae.

Cantiones Sacrae dates from the end of Byrd's time in London; the motets, though setting biblical texts, do not generally set texts commonly used in the liturgy. This is a classic case of the double-think under which Byrd existed in the Elizabethan world. The publication of Cantiones Sacrae was not seen as a strictly Roman Catholic event by the Elizabethan Protestant establishment. Many of them would view the volume as a sort of vocal chamber music, using the motets privately in a secular context rather than within services. But Byrd chose his texts with care and was sending out secret signals to the Roman Catholic community. The motets on this disc deal with desolation, loss, deprivation and separation, with Byrd providing a glimmer of hope in each case.

Haec dici Dominus deals with Rachel, whose sons have been murdered, but Byrd includes the words et est spes ('and there is hope') and sets them in a remarkably direct and moving manner. In Descendit de caelis Byrd is determinedly looking back, as he sets a text familiar from the old Sarum rite. Miserere Mei is deservedly one of the most familiar and well loved pieces on the disc, thanks to it being produced in easily available editions.

Listen -- Byrd: Miserere Mei, Deus
(track 3, 0:01-0:48) © 2009 Hyperion Records Ltd

Circumdederunt me sets a text based on words from Psalm 17, and Byrd employs a number of striking harmonic idioms which he seems to have learned from Continental colleagues. It is pieces like this that show that though Byrd never travelled abroad, he was familiar with continental developments.

Recordare Domine asks God not to destroy the earth and recall his promises to mankind, promises which must have seemed remote to the Roman Catholic community. But with mention of the Holy City, Byrd provides a degree of warmth. Levemus corda feels rather more positive, but in fact its subject matter is pretty much the same. And in Exsurge, quare obdormis Byrd uses an energetic melody to demand that God arise.

All of these pieces could be seen as pure music as well as providing coded messages to the Roman Catholics. But the Gradualia were more daring as they were explicit settings of the Roman Catholic liturgy. Byrd wrote them after he had left London and moved to the relative quiet of Ingatestone Hall in Essex, under the protection of Lord Petre. Though Byrd seems to have had some sort of official protection document from Queen Elizabeth, his family did not, and his move to remoter Essex was partly to avoid the harassment of this family by Elizabethan authorities -- so that his production of a set of masses and the volumes of the Gradualia was all the more daring.

We don't know much about the performance situation of the motets from the Gradualia, though if they were used in church services they must have been sung by a relatively small group of singers. We know from contemporary diaries that women were involved in the choir, of necessity presumably. Throughout this disc Carwood and his group give the pieces a voice to a part, which presumably emulates the original performances. Carwood seems to vary the voices he allocates so that sometimes the top line is taken by a soprano, sometimes by a female alto and sometimes by a male alto. As ever, the scholarship in the set is impressive, but Carwood's notes gives us no indication of why the different voice types were chosen. This is particularly curious in the case of the motets which are labelled as having an alto on the top line, but where Carwood has allocated a soprano.

Byrd does not seem to have set all of the Propers for the Feast of St Peter and St Paul, but he sets some of the Propers from the Mass plus those for Vespers and Lauds, giving us seven motets in all. There is no falling off in quality and one hopes that this volume might spur more groups into investigating these pieces. Most of the motets from the Gradualia are set for AATTBaB, but in two of the motets Byrd uses two low bass parts, causing Carwood to speculate that Byrd must have written the motets for a particular group.

It must be confessed that in the more vigorous sections there were times when I wished that we had a slightly bigger group of singers. Though in a motet like Exsurge, quare obdormis Domine? the results can give the piece a madrigal-like delicacy.

Listen -- Byrd: Exsurge, quare obdormis, Domine?
(track 7, 0:01-0:53) © 2009 Hyperion Records Ltd

Carwood's approach means that clarity of texture is always to the fore.

Listen -- Byrd: Solve, iubente Deo
(track 14, 0:01-0:49) © 2009 Hyperion Records Ltd

Sometimes the soprano line veers towards hardness, and my favourite moments are the slower moving ones with male altos on the top line.

Listen -- Byrd: Circumdederunt me
(track 4, 0:00-1:03) © 2009 Hyperion Records Ltd

The disc also includes Byrd's setting of the Litany in honour of all the Saints; definitely a piece of gebrauchsmusik and not something I would want to come back to often.

The disc is recorded in the Fitzalan Chapel at Arundel Castle, one of the few of England's medieval parish churches to have remained in Roman Catholic hands. (The church was divided at the Reformation with the Protestant town taking half and the Roman Catholic Earls retaining half.)

If you haven't been collecting this set then don't worry, there is some wonderful music on this disc and you couldn't find a better place from which to start exploring Byrd's Gradualia.

Copyright © 24 February 2009 Robert Hugill, London UK




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