Friday, August 22, 2014

The Three Masses of William Byrd

A new recording is released next month by Westminster Cathedral Choir of all three of William Byrd’s settings of the Mass. The recording of the Masses for three, four and five voices also includes the famous Ave verum corpus from Byrd’s Gradualia.

In the sleeve notes, the eminent scholar John Milsom reminds us that the revival of the Byrd Masses came about at Downside Abbey, the London Oratory and at Westminster Cathedral, so it is appropriate that the famed Cathedral Choir should make this recording. He also reminds us that these exquisite Mass settings would have originally been conceived as chamber works, to be sung on a small scale in secret, behind closed doors, for fear of retribution during the Reformation.

It was perhaps partly in deference to these original performances in Tudor times that Martin Baker, the Master of Music, decided to make quite a radical change to the way the choir was recorded. Most of the Cathedral Choir’s recordings are made in the Apse, the usual liturgical singing position of the choir, however for this recording, the choir stood on the Sanctuary in a large square facing inwards towards Martin Baker, who stood at the centre. The effect is very different, both intimate and powerful, with a noticeable change in the acoustics. There is a heightened sense of dynamic range, with diminuendi of extraordinary control which taper into nothingness. And although this music will be very familiar to anyone in regular proximity to a traditional Catholic choir, there is a real sense of a new experience when listening to this recording.

The recording of the 'Mass for three voices' puts the choir’s boy altos to good use on the top line. Something of rarity, the alto line is almost always sung by countertenors alone in the English Cathedral tradition, rather than combining them with boys as is the case at Westminster. The Cathedral Choir sang the 'Mass for five voices' on the occasion Pope Benedict XVI celebrated Mass at Westminster Cathedral. But even on that occasion, we didn’t get to hear the magnificent setting of the Credo. One of the most thrilling moments on this recording comes in the 4-part setting of the Creed at the words ‘et resurrexit’. Listening to it left me with a real desire to hear some of the great Credo settings in a liturgical context.

‘The Three Masses’ by William Byrd, sung by Westminster Cathedral Choir directed by Martin Baker, is available from September 1 from Amazon, iTunes and directly from Hyperion.

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