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CLASSICAL  October 2008

CLASSICAL October 2008

Subject:

Byrd, vol. 10

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Fri, 3 Oct 2008 17:04:35 -0700

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William Byrd

*  Quis est homo?
*  Tribulatio proxima es
*  Apparebit in finem
*  Salve sancta parens
*  Alleluia. Ave Maria .... Virga Jesse
*  Beata es, virgo Maria
*  Beata viscera
*  Regina caeli
*  Salve regina
*  Fac cum servo tuo
*  Ecce quam bonum
*  In manus tuas, Domine
*  Unam petii a Domino
*  Visita quaesumus, Domine
*  Domine, exaudi orationem meam, inclina
*  Laudibus in sanctis

The Cardinall's Musick/Andrew Carwood
Hyperion CDA67568 Total Time: 69.45

Summary for the Busy Executive: Brilliant Byrd.

The Cardinall's Musick has now reached volume 10 of their ambitious
project to record all the works by English Renaissance composer William
Byrd.  The current volume contains selections from the 1591 Cantiones
sacrae and the 1605 Gradualia.

Actually, it kind of amazes me that a complete recording hasn't yet
appeared.  Byrd is, after all, one of the greatest composers of all and
one of the few on the far side of the harmony-modality split who still
speaks directly to us.  Even composers like Josquin or Ockeghem sound
strange to us because they conceived of musical expressiveness in a way
fundamentally different than what we have become accustomed to.  We
depend more on obvious contrast: modulations to remote keys, extreme
dynamic switches, and so on.  Modal composers don't modulate - although
they can change modes.  That is, you may not be able to change key from
C to E-flat, but you can change the scale from, say, C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C to
D-E-F-G-A-B-C-D.  Dynamic changes usually depend on the number of parts
sounding.  If a Renaissance composer wanted to get softer, he temporarily
took away a couple of parts.  Renaissance musicians may have brought off
"natural" crescendos and diminuendos, but the actual sign itself wasn't
part of musical notation until much later.  Even Giovanni Gabrieli, a
contemporary of Byrd, and one of the first to indicate any sort of dynamic
in his music, favored discrete, "terraced" changes, rather than gradual
ones.

While clearly an artist of his time, Byrd nevertheless communicates to
us as "one of us." We don't have to think ourselves back to the conventions
of another age for his music to move us.  Part of this arises from a
naturally dramatic sensibility, apart from the circumstances of his life.
Byrd found himself a believing Catholic in a Reformation England.  His
great talent enabled him to surmount anti-Roman prejudice as far as the
material advancement of his career was concerned (at one point, he and
his teacher, Thomas Tallis, held a monopoly on all music printing in
England), and he became a member of the Chapel Royal.  He knew quite
well the chief conspirators in several Catholic plots to overthrow and
even to assassinate Elizabeth I but, unlike them, was never imprisoned,
tortured, tried, or executed.  At times, he seemed to court martyrdom,
publishing music for Marian worship and three mass settings, as well as
settings of Catholic hymn texts.  One of the chief images of his motet
texts is that of exile.  He felt himself in Babylon.  A powerful musical
mind joined to a dramatic one, felt most keenly in his madrigals and in
those motets where madrigal techniques play a large part.  That is, one
notices the tendency of the music to paint pictures of the physical
world, as in, for example, the riotous dance of the madrigal "Though
Amaryllis dance in green," in the glorious trumpet calls of the motet
"Sing joyfully unto God," or in the solitary weeping of "Ave verum
corpus." Byrd felt little compunction to set entire psalms.  He usually
picked verses from here and there that inspired him, thus intensifying
his expression by not watering it down with filler or note-spinning.
His motets run a virtuosic expressive range - from intimacy to monumentality,
from austerity to exuberance - all found at their height in his contributions
to the Cantiones sacrae of 1575 (the first in collaboration with Tallis),
1589, and 1591.  Some of his motets actually exist in two versions: one
with Latin text, one with English, thus satisfying the demands of both
of his employer and of his faith.  In his later years, Byrd turned his
attention almost exclusively to providing music for Catholic worship.
Much of this can be found in the Gradualia, 1605-07.

Byrd takes his madrigalian techniques to their zenith in "Laudibus in
sanctis," Psalm 150, one of the rare instances (according to the liner
notes, there's one other) of his setting an entire psalm.  Virtuosic
choral "orchestration" and counterpoint as well as imitations of the
various instruments praising God in his sanctuary lead to a grand
conclusion, as everything which has breath praises the Lord.  Byrd's
invention is amazingly fecund in the Propers for Lady Mass in Eastertide
and in the "Regina caeli" (very Catholic compositions from the Gradualia
of 1605), verses either begin or end with "alleluia." In nine occurrences,
Byrd doesn't repeat himself once, and each "alleluia" is extraordinarily
beautiful.

Andrew Carwood, tenor and director of The Cardinall's Musick, knows
Byrd's music as well as anyone.  I sincerely hope they complete the
edition (already they've switched labels from ASV to Hyperion).  In the
nearly four hundred years after Byrd's death, they've come the closest
of anyone to recording the entire catalogue.

English ensemble singing tends to fall into two main types: Smooth and
Creamy, which places emphasis on a homogenous blend (Willcocks's King's
College Choir is the archetype; the Kings Singers furnish a high example
of it today); Tart, where you hear the jostling of timbres from individual
voices, exemplified by a group like the Deller Consort.  The Cardinall's
Musick falls into the latter category.  Personnel switch from motet to
motet, and since the notes list who does what in each selection, you
have a pretty good idea of what each singer in the group sounds like,
even though you hear them almost exclusively in ensemble.  Nevertheless,
that ensemble is superb.  Everybody carves the phrase into the same
shape.  Rhythm is sharp, which means Byrd's complex contrapuntal textures
are clear.  Intonation is so good, it excites you.  Their performance
also shows an awareness of the latest scholarship in Elizabethan practice.
Now I will contradict myself. I find myself less than thrilled with their
dynamic range, which compared to modern practice, is restricted.  That
is, everybody sings at roughly the same level all the time and relies
on "terraced dynamics" to supply the dynamic variety.  Obviously, this
is in keeping with Byrd's procedure in writing these motets.  I have no
intellectual justification for my dissatisfaction; I just don't like the
result.  I want something more Romantic, swoonier. I want a greater
exploration of the softer end of the dynamic spectrum at the appropriate
points in the text.  This group certainly can do it.

That said, this remains one of the finest series of Renaissance recordings
I know, up there with the best groups that have ever come along: David
Munrow's Early Music Group, Noah Greenberg's pioneering New York Pro
Musica, Alfred Deller's Consort, the wild Musica Reservata, and Bruno
Turner's Pro Cantione Antiqua among them.  The Cardinall's Musick
represents a summit of British ensemble singing, which means it's among
the strongest in the world.

Steve Schwartz

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