Thursday 28 January 2016

The Deer's Cry - music in a time of persecution by Byrd, Tallis & Pärt

The Deer's Cry - The Sixteen - Coro
The Deer's Cry: Music by Byrd, Tallis and Arvo Pärt; The Sixteen, Harry Christophers; Coro
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jan 26 2016
Star rating: 4.0

The music from the Sixteen's 2016 choral pilgrimage mixes Byrd and Tallis's 1575 Cantiones sacrae with works by Arvo Pärt

In plenty of time for their 2016 Choral Pilgrimage, Harry Christophers and The Sixteen issue their latest CD, The Deer's Cry on the Coro label, covering the programme for the pilgrimage. The music chosen combines Byrd and Tallis with Arvo Pärt. With the music of Pärt & Byrd especially, we have composers writing under the threat of persecution. Byrd's music includes a number of works from the 1575 Cantiones Sacrae including Diliges Dominum, Emendemus in melius, Miserere mihi, O lux beata Trinitas the large scale motet Tribue, Domine alongside Arvo Pärt's The Deer's Cry, The Woman with the Alabaster Box and Nunc Dimittis.

Byrd's Diliges Dominum is one of those striking works such as Tallis was also fond of writing, in which a dazzling structure is hidden under a deceptively beautiful surface. In Diliges Dominum the work is a musical palindrome with four voices singing melodies forwards and the other four singing the same music backwards. Here we have the 18 singers of The Sixteen giving us a lovely even smooth tone which blossoms in the generous acoustic of St Augustine's Church, Kilburn. There is a fine sense of blend and evenness of tone, giving the work a deceptive perfection masking the complexities of music and performance underneath. Byrd's Christe qui lux es et dies is a series of striking harmonisations of the same plainchant melody, one for each verse, simple but beautifully effective.

Arvo Pärt's The Deer's Cry sets part of a text attributed to St Patrick and set in English. There is a lovely surface calm to this (as there should be) with beautifully even tone from the sopranos supported by a the rhythmic but discreet accompaniment of the rest of the choir. The piece is sung with great poise and rises to a wonderful climax. The Woman with the Alabaster Box has a sombre gravity with gorgeous textures arising from a lovely precise placing of the various chords. Byrd's Emendemus in melius which comes between the two Pärt pieces provides a nice contrast with a lovely sense of intertwining lines.

In Byrd's Miserere mihi the dexterous part writing with the various canons is again subsumed under the easy perfection of the whole piece. Ad dominum cum tribulare is impressively large scale with a richness to the texture. Here and elsewhere the detail is somewhat lost in the acoustic which is the price to be paid for the lovely effect the acoustic has on the overall structure of the music.

Miserere nostri from the 1575 Cantiones sacrae is commonly accredited to Tallis, but in the article which accompanies the disc John Milsom argues for joint authorship with Byrd writing four voices and Tallis then adding three. Whoever did what, the result is a gorgeous unfolding of hidden complexity, here sung at quite a steady pace which makes it all the more striking.

Tallis often used complex canons in his motets, and like Byrd brings off the feat of making the music sound effortless. When Jesus went has one such a canon, it is published in the 1575 Cantiones sacrae as Salvator mundi but some manuscripts use the English words telling the same story as Pärt's The Woman with the Alabaster Box.

Byrd's O lux beata Trinitas invokes the Trinity by including a three voice canon, and here the surface beauty of the textures are enlivened by some nicely marked passages, bringing the rich textures to life.

Arvo Pärt's Nunc Dimittis is quiet and intense with a mysterious haunting feel until it builds to a wonderful climax.

Byrd's  Laetentur coeli  is light and joyful with a lively sense of movement. The final work on the disc, also by Byrd, is humongous, Tribue, Domine lasting over eleven minutes and inspired by the votive antiphons of the early Tudor composer but here devoted to the Trinity rather than the Virgin. The performance from the Sixteen is a notable achievement, with a finely mobile texture and a really vibrancy to the music.

There is a fine accompanying article by John Milsom which details all the various structural games that the composers were playing when writing the pieces, along with a lovely picture of Rushton Triangular Lodge, almost Byrd's Trinitarian canon made manifest. Of course there are other codes too; many of Byrd's texts are not liturgical and instead often carry extra messages to the recusant Catholics in England.

I did worry occasionally if, by using the generous acoustic of St Augustine's Church, Kilburn, a sense of line and detail was being sacrificed to the lovely rich smooth surface of the sound, particularly when it comes to the words. But the results have such a fine richness and depth to them that it is hard to complain too much!

The disc is released on 29 January 2016. The Sixteen's 2016 Choral Pilgrimage starts on 8 April 2016

William Byrd (c1540-1623) - Diliges Dominum
William Byrd (c1540-1623) - Christe qui lux es et dies
Arvo Pärt (born 1935) - The Deer's Cry
William Byrd (c1540-1623) - Emendemus in melius
Arvo Pärt (born 1935) - The Woman with the Albaster Box
William Byrd (c1540-1623) - Miserere mihi, Domine
William Byrd (c1540-1623) - Ad Dominum cum tribularer
Thomas Tallis (c1505-1585)/William Byrd (c1540-1623) - Miserere nostri
Thomas Tallis (c1505-1585) - When Jesus went
William Byrd (c1540-1623) -  O lux beata Trinitas
Arvo Pärt (born 1935) - Nunc dimittis
William Byrd (c1540-1623) -  Laetentur coeli
William Byrd (c1540-1623) - Tribue, Domine
The Sixteen
Harry Christophers (conductor)
Recorded at the church of St Augustine, Kilburn, 26-28 October 2015
CORO CO16140 1CD [66.52]

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