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Recordings

Byrd.  The Great Service
09 Feb 2006

BYRD: The Great Service

The religious turmoil of sixteenth-century England was characterized not only by factionalism and polarity, but also famously by the charting of a via media, a middle path, through opposing views.

William Byrd: The Great Service

The Choir of Westminster Abbey, James O’Donnell, conductor; Robert Quinney, organ

Hyperion CDA67533 [CD]

$18.99  Click to buy

Thus, while the extremes of Mary Tudor’s Romanism on the one hand and Puritan reform on the other would leave a heavy footprint of contention and strife, some seemed successfully to “live and move” in the middle. Queen Elizabeth’s Chapel Royal is one of the more obvious cases in point. Answerable only to the monarch, the Chapel Royal under Elizabeth featured a ceremonial richness at odds with the Puritanism that rose after the death of Queen Mary, but at the same time one that would stay politically distant from Rome. The ceremonial richness was naturally enough also a musical one, as contemporary comment by foreign ambassadors enthusiastically observes.

Without question one of the brightest jewels in the Chapel was William Byrd. Byrd became a Gentlemen of the Chapel Royal in 1570 upon the tragic drowning accident of his predecessor, Robert Parsons, and would hold this appointment for over fifty years. His “Great Service,” large-scale settings of liturgical texts for Matins and Evensong, was in all likelihood a Chapel Royal piece. Its sophistication and the large forces required—an impressive ten voices—make it an unlikely work for almost anywhere else.

With a ten-part ensemble, Byrd has ample choices for varied configurations, and he scores these works with an ear to dramatic contrasts: the contrasts of the right and left sides of the choir, the contrasts of counterpoint and chordal writing, the contrasts of registers, the contrasts of soli and tutti. It is an intricacy of kaleidoscopic sound that engages the ear and dazzles in the process. Unsurprisingly, some of the varied textures are created to enhance the structure and meaning of the text. In the Creed, for instance, the antiphonal division of “God of Gods” and “Light of Light” leads to an impressively united “Very God of very God,” resolving the tension created by the to-and-fro antiphony and underscoring the dynamic climax inherent in the text itself.

The Choir of Westminster Abbey under the direction of James O’Donnell renders these works with vigor. I find here that their singing tends to be more full and direct rather than shapely and suave. This serves the climactic and more rhythmicized sections well, but elsewhere the approach can be somewhat overbearing. Hearing the Choir sing with this degree of fullness in the Abbey itself, where reverberation and distance play a large part in how the sound is perceived, is rather different from this same volume close-at-hand via the microphone, and in this light, one might wish for more of the Abbey’s acoustic ambience in the recording. This reservation aside, most of the recording will amply satisfy. Here and there some infelicities of pitch surface in treble solos, but by and large, this is one of England’s great choirs in fine form, indeed.

There are a number of ancillary items on the recording, including familiar anthems like the exuberant “Sing Joyfully” and the sumptuous “O Lord, make thy servant Elizabeth,” this latter ending with one of the most memorable “Amens” in the repertory. Particularly welcome are two voluntaries from “My Lady Nevell’s Booke,” played with a high sense of period style by Robert Quinney, and the verse anthem, “Christ rising again,” performed with its ecclesiastical organ accompaniment rather than the often heard domestic consort of viols.

The frontispiece to Byrd’s Psalmes, Sonets & Songs of Sadnes and Pietie (1588) rehearse a number of reasons why one should learn to sing, concluding with the couplet:

Since singing is so good a thing
I wish all men would learne to sing.
With this recent recording from the Choir of Westminster Abbey, we can be grateful that James O’Donnell and his charges seem enthusiastically under the sway of the same view.

Steven Plank
Oberlin College

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