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 to those motets in which 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 AS&V 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.
Copyright © 2008, Steve Schwartz