Wednesday 25 March 2020

Singing in Secret: The Marian Consort in Byrd's mass for four voices and propers for All Saints

Singing in Secret - William Byrd Mass for Four Voices, motets; The Marian Consort; Delphian
Singing in Secret - William Byrd Mass for Four Voices, motets; The Marian Consort; Delphian
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 24 March 2020 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
Byrd's four-part mass forms the centrepiece of this powerful new disc from the Marian Consort

For someone who was a Roman Catholic in England at a time when it was proscribed, William Byrd wrote a remarkable amount of Roman Catholic music, two volumes of motets, the two volumes of Gradualia with music for all the services of the Church year, and three masses. What is interesting about the motets is that many of them do not set liturgical texts but instead use Biblical texts which would have had resonance for Byrd's fellow Catholics.

The new disc (released 27 March 2020) from Rory McCleery and The Marian Consort on Delphian, Singing in Secret explores these Roman Catholic resonances in William Byrd's music. Around a performance of Byrd's Mass in Four Voices, McCleery has placed the motets Miserere mei, Gaudeamus omnes, Timete Dominum, Ave Maria, Laetentur Coeli, Justorum Anime, Deo Gratias, and Beate mundo corde, ending with the large scale Infelix ergo.

The Marian Consort recording session at Crichton Collegiate Church (photo Will Campbell-Gibson)
The Marian Consort recording session at Crichton Collegiate Church (photo Will Campbell-Gibson)
We have very little background to Byrd's masses, they were printed without their dedicatory title page which usually a great source of information about a work. Whilst we have occasional descriptions of recusant Catholic services in private houses where Byrd was present, we are not able to place his masses with a particular ensemble the way the music written for the Anglican church in England can often be. The music itself is somewhat tricky to place, and it has been argued that the Mass in Four Voices was intended to be transposed down with altos singing the top line, but perhaps the music's sheer flexibility was deliberate. The choirs at Catholic masses would not be made up of regular choristers but would be whoever was able to sing, and of course technically women were not supposed to sing in church though we know that they did so at recusant Roman Catholic services in England.

Byrd's two books of Gradualia (1605 and 1607) are dedicated to two members of the Catholic nobility,  Lord Howard  and Lord Petre, by this time under James I (whose mother was a Roman Catholic), members of the faith were hoping for an easier treatment than under Elizabeth I. Byrd's dedication to Lord Petre, his patron, makes it clear that the music was used at services at Lord Petre's chapel (there was a private Roman Catholic chapel used by family and locals at Petre's house, Ingatestone Hall until the 1860s). The completeness of Byrd's writing for the Roman Catholic liturgy (three masses, over a hundred propers and other motets), reflects perhaps a desire to repopulate repertoire which had been lost at the Reformation. Catholic households, like that of Lord Petre, would probably not have much if any liturgical music most of which would have been destroyed at the time of the reformation.

McCleery and the ensemble intersperse the motets between the mass movements, finishing with Infelix ego, and thus creating the feel of a mass setting.  The motets include the propers for All Saints, Gaudeamus omnes, Timete Dominum, Justorum anime and Beati mundo in corde, music which is rightly celebratory but to which Byrd also brings an element of sober reflection and consideration. When the Gradualia  was published in 1605, the joy of the celebration of All Saints would be tempered indeed for the Roman Catholics.

I think the Marian Consort sings the mass at the printed pitch, two singers per part with women on the top two lines, and Rory McCleery conducting. For the motets, the ensemble reverts to a conductorless one to a part, with just Infelix ergo being conducted. A nice compromise, which brings the necessary intimacy to the music yet still gives the mass that strong sense of presence it requires.

The words are particularly important, and even the texts of the smaller motets could mean something to those who knew. Miserere mei for instance, sets a text which was recited by the Jesuit Missionary Robert Southwell at his execution, whilst the large scale Infelix ego sets a meditation on Psalm 51 by the Florentine preacher Girolamo Savoronola, written in captivity prior to his execution in 1498, it is full of rhetorical statements and questions, passing gradually from dejection and misery to repentance and finally hope, taking listeners (particularly Catholic ones) on an emotional journey. Infelix ergo comes from one of Byrd's Cantiones Sacrae collections which was dedicated to Lord Lumley, who is known to have had a copy of Savonorola's text.

This is very much a consort, with a group of individuals singing together rather than a choral blend. They make a finely vibrant yet elegant sound, and overall I found the performances very musical without any particular axe to grind. Occasionally I worried that the sound was a little too soprano led, and each singer projects quite strongly but the detail in the parts with individual voices moving is clear, and the result is vibrant, engaging and poised. With the greater number of singers per part, the mass movements are stronger and more choral but still with a quite a vibrant sense to the music and a lovely spaciousness to the line.

The Marian Consort recording session at Crichton Collegiate Church (photo Will Campbell-Gibson)
The Marian Consort recording session at Crichton Collegiate Church (photo Will Campbell-Gibson)
These are finely musical performances which give a strong sense of a consort of voices singing the music rather than an Anglican choir, and the result is vibrant and finely musical, but at the same time rather evocative of the period of performance.

William Byrd (1539/40 - 1623) - Mass for Four Voices
William Byrd - Miserere mei
William Byrd - Gaudeamus omnes
William Byrd - Timete Dominum
William Byrd - Ave Maria
William Byrd - Laetentur Coeli
William Byrd - Justorum Anime
William Byrd - Deo Gratias
William Byrd - Beate mundo corde
William Byrd - Infelix ergo
The Marian Consort (Charlotte Ashley, Lucinda Cox, Helen Charlston, Hannah Cooke, Rory McCleery, Edward Ross, Ashley Tunnell, Michael Craddock, Edmund Saddington)
Rory McCleery (director)
Recorded at Crichton Collegiate Church, Midlothian, 5-7 August 2019
DELPHIAN DCD34230 1CD [60.14]

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