An outstanding celebration of William Byrd by The Cardinall’s Musick

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Byrd: The Cardinall’s Musick, Andrew Carwood (director). Wigmore Hall, London, 4.7.2023. (MB)

The Cardinall’s Musick (c) Benjamin Ealovega

Byrd – Mass for 4 voices, with the Propers for the Feast of Easter Day; Mass for 3 voices, with the Propers for the Feast of Corpus Christi; Mass for 5 voices, with the Propers for the Feast of All Saints

On 4 July 1623, William Byrd’s long, turbulent life ended in the Essex village of Stondon Massey, to which he had semi-retired almost thirty years earlier. Four hundred years later, the Wigmore Hall and The Cardinall’s Musick commemorated that death with performances of the three mass settings he wrote for private, recusant performance during that ‘retirement’, as published in three pamphlets printed by Thomas East between 1592 and 1595, supplemented by polyphonic settings of seasonal Propers from the two books of Gradualia (1605 and 1607). Knowing that these were probably the first English mass settings composed since the 1550s only added to the sense of something special, secret, and possibly dangerous (or rather, it would have been). Three concerts spaced throughout the day offered a fitting tribute to one of England’s greatest composers, enhanced by exemplary programme notes from Katherine Butler.

The order was that of publication, so we began with the Mass for 4 voices. Certain parameters for performance were set up, the masses sometimes using two voices per part, reducing to one for certain sections, naturally the more intimate, and the other music given one to a part (though not necessarily in the same number of parts as the mass). But this first performance was also atypical, in that it was the only one to feature only male voices, female sopranos being employed for the other two. The sound of one or two countertenors on the top line can take a little getting used to; so can a concert hall acoustic for sacred music. (I had ringing in my mind the different style and venue of Stile Antico at the Temple Church a few days previously, and ‘Haec dies’ made for an interesting point of comparison, here sounding notably less ‘Anglican’.) But hearing things differently is part of the interest—and here not only the opportunity to hear the complete mass settings and in something of a liturgical reconstruction (albeit only musically) was in itself part of the attraction and achievement. Speeds tended to be on the swift side, but then this was – in theory – Easter, not Lent, as the Introit, ‘Resurrexit, et adhuc tecum sum’ made clear. And the Sanctus would broaden notably. The singers, throughout thoughtfully and ably directed by Andrew Carwood, certainly seemed to have found their own solution, as in the notably progressive three stages of the Kyrie, to the riddle of how to have the music sound both straightforward and complex. Words were always clear: crucial where there were many of them, not only in the Gloria and Credo, but also the Sequence, ‘Victimae paschali’. Detail was taken care of, as in the Offertory Terra remiuit et quievit’ and its earth trembling, without undue fuss. A full, flowing Agnus Dei nonetheless kept a sense of space, followed, as were all three settings, by the chanted ‘Ite missa est. Deo gratias.’

The move to three parts was postponed by a four-part Introit, ‘Cibavit eos ex adipe frumenti’, its Alleluias an especial joy. The almost-miniature quality of the Mass in 3 parts was not in any sense taken to convey a lack of ambition, but rather an intimacy that offered its own challenges and rewards. Informers, after all, were everywhere; special care was often necessary. The three simple statements of the Kyrie were complete in themselves; they required no more. And a similar straightforwardness to the Gloria left plenty of room for winning detail — and an unmistakable sense of religious confidence. This was, after all, the celebration of Corpus Christi, Byrd’s comfort and relish in setting the words of the Propers strongly to the fore: ‘Alleluia, Caro mea vere est cibus,’ for instance, in the Gradual and Alleluia. Credal word painting made its point beautifully, as for instance on ‘ascendit’. There was no doubting, here or elsewhere, that this meant something: something extremely important. The Offertory, ‘Sacerdotes Domini’, illuminated from within and without a darkened world. So did the radiant certainty of the Communion setting, ‘Quotiescunque manducabitis panem hunc…’, the Agnus Dei seemingly taking its leave from and also completing it.

For the Mass in 5 parts, we had the full complement of ten singers (plus conductor). Five solo voices, though, could sound every bit as jubilatory, indeed still more so, as in the festal opening, vocal bells pealing: ‘Gaudeamus omnes’. The music of the Mass sounded warmer, more majestic, than that of the four-part version. There was strength to the more intimate duets and trios too. This was not Monteverdi and would never have been taken as such, but perhaps there was an affinity at distance after all, whatever the privations of late Elizabethan and early Jacobean England for a devout Roman Catholic. Byrd’s boldness in imitative writing in the Gradual and Alleluia – the word of refreshment, ‘reficiam’, in particular – received powerful advocacy. So too did the declamatory writing of the Credo, sometimes tending a little toward the madrigalian, whilst ever founded on the truth of the Church as Rock of Peter. The Offertory ‘Justorum animae in manu Dei sunt’ afforded, so it seemed, a foretaste of sweet riches in the world to come, Byrd’s writing well balanced and harmonically grounded in performance. The extraordinary string of unprepared dissonances in the Communion motet, ‘Beati mundo corde’ made its point, from a world of persecution, abundantly clear, after which the solo petitioning of the Agnus Dei took on new and wider meaning, albeit ultimately reconciled by a peace that passed, as it must, all understanding.

Mark Berry

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