This is the final volume in Andrew Carwood and The Cardinall's Music's wonderful survey of the music of Elizabethan and Jacobean composer, William Byrd (1539/1540-1623); it began as long ago as 1997 and has taken thirteen CDs. Each has received more critical acclaim than the last – the whole enterprise marking a very real and important landmark in recordings of (English) Renaissance choral music. This CD is no exception: the singing is of the highest standard. Carwood and the nine-strong Cardinall's Music manage consistently not only to produce lovely and compelling sounds. But also to penetrate directly to the heart of Byrd's musical intentions.
The reasons for the former are less evident than for the latter. In common with many of the more successful "early' music performers, the singers of The Cardinall's Music devote much time and effort to research and study of the period, the composers, their music and how it may have sounded to contemporary listeners. As for the sheer beauty of what results, it may just be that the singers' commitment and immersion in the idiom and spirit of Byrd makes it inevitable that such a profound and creative soul as Byrd's (Carwood compares Byrd to Shakespeare in stature) will always emerge.
It helps here that the works on this final CD are some of the most compelling that Byrd wrote. They are drawn chiefly from the Cantiones Sacrae of 1591. This contains some of Byrd's most sublime and at the same time adventurous music. Domine, non sum dignus and Haec dies, for example, have elements of the madrigal. Domine, salva nos makes use of dramatic tone-painting relevant to the perils of the sea. Other works, such as Cunctis diebus and Afflicti pro peccatis nostris refer obliquely or directly to the plight of those whose religion is suppressed – as was Byrd's. The performers here have achieved the right balance between the unimaginable pain of those in such situations as Catholics found themselves during the reign of the aggressively Protestant Elizabeth I on the one hand. And their belief in the justness of their cause on the other. The fact that Byrd seems to have been allowed to continue to compose for a banned faith is testament to the degree to which his music was appreciated, and revered at the time. But it also speaks to the detachment from the intensity of a response to religious persecution on the other. It is this "wider view" that Carwood and The Cardinall's Music have managed to respond to and capture – consistent tempi; unhistrionic styles of articulation; clean, communicative melodic lines; and a gentle yet persuasive sense of each piece's structure in the service of itself as a work of art as much as of a confessional "document".
Infelix ego itself is by far the longest piece on the CD. It's also one of the loveliest. A meditation on Psalm 50 by Savanarola (1452-1498), it exudes piety and purity. Yet has the color, texture and personal anguish of a very pertinent creed. Carwood and his singers do it real justice. The harmonic power with which Byrd infused the text rings in your ears for a long while after listening to it even a single time. While it could be argued that it encapsulates the whole tone and force of sixteenth century polyphony, Infelix ego is also a strident yet humble summary of the many ways in which great composers found to communicate a wealth of feelings long before the Romantics. It's worth the price of this CD alone!
Production and presentation of this Hyperion CD are well up to the standards of the first dozen in the series – and, indeed, of course, to Hyperion's usual standards otherwise. Carwood has a perceptive essay introducing the music and reflecting on the "wonderful journey of discovery… which has revealed new gems and hidden treasures at every turn." The full text of all 15 works is given in Latin and English. The recording is clear and acoustically very apt for the music; it was recorded in the roomy Fitzalan Chapel of the splendid Arundel Castle in southern England. For anyone collecting the series this is an essential final addition, of course. If you're new to Byrd, it's hard to believe this introduction wouldn't whet your appetite for more. There are other recordings of Byrd's vocal music; but nothing approaching the consistently high quality of Carwood's series. Warmly recommended.
Copyright © 2010, Mark Sealey.