09 Mar 2012

Byrd: The Englishman

In this stimulating and uplifting performance, The Cardinall’s Musick, led by director Andrew Carwood, continued their comprehensive project to examine the works of one of England’s greatest composers — William Byrd (c.1540—1623).

Following their highly praised recording of Byrd’s complete Latin church music, they have now embarked upon a nine-month tour that will take them to venues spread across the width and breath of the UK, beginning with this assured recital at London’s Wigmore Hall.

Byrd’s Great Service — the most substantial of his compositions for the English rites — belongs to the early-English Great Service tradition established by John Shepherd, Robert Parsons and William Mundy, being neither ‘full’ not ‘verse’ in a conventional sense but calling for soloists and full choir. Despite Archbishop Cranmer’s ecclesiastical injunction, intended to ‘simplify’ church music during the English Reformation, that compositions for the church should be “not full of notes, but, as near as may be, for every syllable a note”, Byrd did not resist the temptation to musically expand the words at will, to reflect the glorious texts.

The Cardinall’s Musick communicated with unfailing emotional directness; the singers made it clear that the extension of the text is a perfect expression of its sentiment and feeling, as in the Benedictus where they relished the splendidly rich development of “all the days of our life” which depicts the sincerity of man’s eternal devotion.

The Service predominantly employs five-part polyphony but divides into six, seven and eight parts — even 10 on one occasion. This is demanding music, both intellectually and musically, and this performance was characterised by remarkable textural lucidity, as the voices intricately dovetailed and interweaved. The singers skilfully painted colour and underscored contrasts, never in a mannered fashion, but revealing an intimate understanding of the way Byrd combines a myriad of different vocal registers and groupings. Individual voices rose from the seamless whole and melted effortlessly back into the blend; but there’s is no homogenous, emotionally restrained timbre — rather the individual voices have a vivid immediacy and distinctive character.

The group brought vigour and energy to the wide range of harmonic and melodic rhythms employed by Byrd. Phrasing was uniformly beautiful, but there was also much freedom and elasticity in the melodic lines, with the introduction of compound rhythmic groupings within simple time signatures. Such versatility — the union of strength and suppleness — was entrancing.

Similarly the surprisingly complex rhythmic combinations of the Benedictus, “To give light to them that sit in darkness, and in the shadow of death”, were both magical and awe-inspiring, as the singers observed the idiosyncratic accents in individual vocal parts. Much charm resulted also from thoughtful emphases of chromatic and harmonic nuances; in the Benedictus, the flattening of the tenor’s line, “Through the tender mercy of our God”, combined with the delicate decoration of “tender” by the second alto II was deeply affecting. Throughout the singers confident embraced Byrd’s harmonic boldness, particularly at the end of the Magnificat.

Most striking was the power of the full choir entries, and the elaborate developments and repetitions; in the Te Deum, “Let me never be confounded” was majestically assertive, an arresting contrast with the poignant tenderness of the Magnificat’s depiction of the Virgin, “the lowliness of His handmaiden”. The latter movement also offered the most exciting passages, “He have scattered the proud” — in which the rhythmic motifs literally scattered the words dynamically across the score — and the eight-part, “He hath put down the mighty from their seat”, in which voice after voice leaps down in a sequence of dramatic descending intervals.

Interspersed between the movements of the service were anthems dating from both the beginning and end of Byrd’s compositional career. Of particular note was ‘Prevent us, O Lord’, in which the singers controlled the tightly compressed imitative texture, two- and three-voice units merging seamlessly with dense homophonic passages in the lower register in a flexible fashion. And, whatever Queen Elizabeth I’s awareness of Byrd’s instinctive religious sentiments, she would surely not have failed to be moved by this performance of ‘O Lord make thy servant’, in which the very close imitation at “give her her heart’s desire” conveyed the composer’s love and loyalty. For the final ‘Amen’, the soprano serenely sustained the tonic while movement in the lower parts built through a moving crescendo before receding to a calmer resolution.

Given the usual ecclesiastical context of this repertoire, one might have misgivings about performances in secular venues. However, the Wigmore Hall surely comes close to the intimate rooms — private chapels or the Chapel Royal in St James’s Palace — in which Byrd intended such music to be experienced. As the singers arranged themselves antiphonally beneath the Hall’s half-cupola, I anticipated an air of reverence despite the lack of ecclesiastical resonance and expanse. The architectural grandeur and variety of the ‘Amens’ might alone craft a devout mood. Indeed, the singers’ resonant tone was never arid. And, the amazing seven-part Amen to the Benedictus, with its precipitate entries and grandiose upwards sweeping scales, one following another, was breath-taking.

However, the performance never quite achieved the elevating spiritual level for which one might have hoped. The insertion of the anthems interrupted the accumulating spiritual force of the unfolding movements of the service. And, this was exacerbated by Carwood’s spoken introductions before various stages of the service — pleasant and informative they may have been but were they really necessary given that the concert was preceded by a pre-performance talk? Together with the audience’s applause, which Carwood himself ‘permitted’ in his opening welcome, these elements somewhat disturbed the reverential ambience.

One more minor quibble: Byrd’s rhythms present an effortlessly natural accentuation of the English language and it was disappointing that at times that the text was not always distinctly enunciated. But, what was never in doubt was the musical intelligence and deep expressivity of The Cardinall’s Musick. The concert certainly achieved Carwood’s aim to “take Byrd around the country, to showcase his passion and to place him in context as the most important musician of the Tudor age”.

Claire Seymour


Venite from The Great Service
O Lord make thy servant Elizabeth our Queen
Te Deum from The Great Service
Prevent us, O Lord
Benedictus from The Great Service
Praise our Lord, all ye Gentiles
Magnificat from The Great Service
Turn our captivity, O Lord
Sing ye to our Lord
Come, let us rejoice unto our Lord
Nunc dimittis from The Great Service

Click here for information regarding the William Byrd Edition by Cardinall’s Musick.