Thursday, August 13, 2009

Byrd's Music for Corpus Christi

In honor of the Byrd Festival taking place this week, I would like to draw attention to what has become one of my favorite recordings of William Byrd's music, and this CD is particularly attractive because it contains Lauda Sion in chant alongside the Mass for Five Voices plus many wonderful motets. It is the Winchester Cathedral Choir directed by Donald Sweeney. It contains beautiful presentations of Quotiescunque manducabitis, Pange Lingua, O Sacrum Convivium, O Salutaris, and Ave Verum.

I was initially stunned by the slow tempos here, but they came to challenge my suppositions about Byrd's music. I have tended to be fascinated by the erector-set-style machinery of his polyphonic writing, with voices at once more independent and more interrelated by others of this school of writing. When even one voice is missing, a hole appears in the music. The sheer genius of the mechanical contraption is what has always drawn my attention.

But here in this recording, we move well beyond this aspect of things to find the impossible beauty and musicality and love inherent in the music. It is not only due to slower tempos. It is due to the fullness and undying richness of the singing itself, which seems to suspend in the air as if by magic, held in flight by a mysterious power. The text earns a primary place even when sung by the boy trebles, who enunciate perfectly. It is exquisite in every way.

If you are going to hear Byrd, there is no substitute for hearing it live in Mass at the Byrd Festival. But if you can't make it to Portland, this is a great way to experience its glory. For more on Byrd and his music, see A Byrd Celebration.

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