William Byrd (1540-1623)
The Golden Renaissance
Stile Antico
rec. 2022, All Hallows’ Church, Gospel Oak, London, UK
Decca 485 3951 [70]

This is the second volume of Stile Antico’s ‘Golden Renaissance’ trilogy of recordings, commemorating the 400th anniversary of William Byrd; the other releases celebrate the anniversaries of Josquin des Prez and Palestrina. The programme here concentrates on his later work written between 1605 and 1611, except for the final work, which is from 1575, and artfully intersperses his Mass for Four Voices and the Propers for the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary with “sacred songs” in both English and Latin. Unlike the Mass, the other pieces were not intended for liturgical purposes but simply as chamber music to entertain, while Tribue, Domine was presented to the queen on Accession Day in the seventeenth year of her reign. Byrd was a clandestine Catholic who, despite being kept under surveillance and having to appear frequently in the assizes and be heavily fined for failure to attend the local Protestant parish church, managed to survive, even finding favour with the Court and prospering under the protection of Essex Catholic gentry.

Out of interest, I compared this new performance of the mass with recordings by The Sixteen in 1988 and David Willcocks’ and the King’s College Choir in 1963, to see if styles had changed much over sixty years. Stile Antico is a group of a dozen singers supplemented here occasionally by two more men, so is obviously much the same in size as the Sixteen, whereas The King’s choir will have been larger. Interestingly, there is very little difference in timings; the Sixteen are somewhat swifter in the closing sections of the masses. Obviously vocal textures are rather different, though: King’s has boys, male altos and a larger group of lower-voiced men but the Sixteen and Stile Antico are smaller groups with women altos and sopranos and the voice parts evenly distributed. The Sixteen, of course, have long been renowned for their pure, soaring sound but it is decidedly biased towards their superb sopranos, whereas Stile Antico are more balanced, their sopranos sound more like trebles and their sound is generally very slightly warmer and “earthier” – or perhaps I mean “earthlier” – but still smooth and sweet. They are few enough in number for us to be able to hear individual voices but I do not mean to imply by that that there is any lack of homogeneous blend.

The wide leaps, sustained dissonances and long lines in Byrd’s music hold no fears for them. If I have any reservations – and they are few in the face of such artistry – I would like just a little more weight in the bass line. Unless my ears deceive me, sometimes men are singing the alto line in falsetto as countertenors but the listing does not make that clear; only female altos and male tenors are listed. Much of this music was unfamiliar to me, but it is consistently beguiling; complex, melodic, absorbing, never dull or routine; if you are a singer, you will find yourself involuntarily joining in with the luscious harmonies.

Especially enjoyable are the complicated and relentlessly propulsive Propter veritatem and the brief, joyous Assumpta est Maria with its crowning peal of “Alleluias”. Also very lovely, is the conclusion to Praise our Lord all ye Gentiles which is like a peal of bells on the “Amen”.  The longest and most substantial piece here is Tribue, Domine. Beautiful as it all is – and beautifully sung, too – I can appreciate that there is a certain sameness to this music, which is so subtle that modern ears might tire, so perhaps staggered listening is advisable.

(There is a sequencing error in the booklet – tracks 11 to 13 are jumbled – but the texts are provided so it’s easy to find your place.)

Ralph Moore

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1. Retire My Soul
2. Gaudeamus omnes
Mass for Four Voices:
3. Kyrie
4. Gloria
5. Propter veritatem
Mass for Four Voices:
6. Credo
7. Assumpta est Maria
Mass for Four Voices:
8. Sanctus – Benedictus
9. Optimam partem elegit
Mass for Four Voices:
10. Agnus Dei
11. Turn Our Captivity, O Lord
12. Praise Our Lord, all ye Gentiles
13. Laudate Dominum omnes gentes
14.Tribue, Domine