Reviewed by John Irvine
William Byrd must have impressed Queen Elizabeth the First greatly: not only was he permitted to write music appropriate to Roman Catholic worship - which had recently been made illegal in England as part of the progress of the Reformation - he was also allowed, along with his friend and colleague Thomas Tallis, to publish it free from persecution. Perhaps Elizabeth recognised him as one of the finest composers England has ever produced and felt that such talent should be allowed to flourish regardless of Royal Policy on political and religious matters. As it was, Byrd's work would have been likely to have been actually performed in secret, for example in the great houses of the gentry who still maintained a secret Catholic faith. These were dangerous times for Catholics, and Byrd's compositions still convey the sense of faith under siege, of a Church under pressure, of Communicants under persecution. Yet in all of this Byrd's settings of his texts, especially the setting of the Roman Catholic Mass 'For Five Voices', are beautiful, vibrant and powerfully moving pieces which still have their place today in the repertoire of cathedral choirs. Three aspects make this recording with the Winchester Cathedral Choir under the direction of David Hill particularly worthy of mention. Firstly, it is a wonderful recording catching both the acoustic of the cathedral and the tone and inflection of the voices wonderfully. Secondly, rather than use the forces Byrd anticipated - that is, five voices - Hill (perhaps controversially) uses the whole of the choir with choir sections doubling up on the parts. While not historically accurate, it is quite refreshing in the context of a flood of historically correct recordings using period instruments and performance techniques thought to have been current to have a recording which is not afraid to use the full resources of a modern cathedral choir thus linking the music of the past with the performance techniques of the present. It is a quite lovely sound! Thirdly, the Mass setting (five short movements) is augmented on this recording by various "Mass Propers" from the feast of Corpus Christi, which allows the listener to follow the music through a full late 16th century act of Roman Catholic worship. Steep yourself in history.
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