William Byrd: Assumpta est Maria — The Byrd Edition Volume 12

The Cardinall's Musick / Andrew Carwood (Hyperion CDA 67675)

31 August 2009 5 stars

ByrdThis is the twelfth volume of The Byrd Edition from The Cardinall's Musick and it covers three settings of Mass Propers celebrating the life of the Virgin Mary through her Nativity, the Annunciation and the Assumption as well as Four Hymns from the Little Office of the Virgin. Leaving behind the Cantiones Sacrae of 1591 of recent volumes, this later music written in the quiet of the Essex countryside shows a marked difference in style from Byrd's middle-years of melancholy. The Gradualia is, in some respects, more madrigalian and the short texts highlight Byrd's superb compositional versatility as he responds to the subtleties of each.

Although there were few, if any, contemporary models for Byrd to follow when he devised his modular scheme of presenting music proper to Mass, a complex system of transfers between the various Propers means that each musical setting can be used in several different contexts. Now that Andrew Carwood and The Cardinall's Musick are on their third volume devoted entirely to Gradualia collections we begin to hear some of these musical sections returning for a second time and that is noticeable in the first track of the album, Salve sancta parens which here is the introit for the Nativity of the Virgin but was previously heard on Volume 10 ('Laudibus in sanctis') when it functioned as the introit in the Propers for Lady Mass in Eastertide, a Mass which also contains familiar offertory and communion music. It may strike listeners as odd to hear some of these short works repeated across the albums, but due to the complexity of the Gradualia no other options would result in a satisfying musical experience that also made any theological sense. Diffusa est gratia, for instance, is never performed as it was printed in the Gradualia, and on this recording appropriate to the feast of the Assumption it begins at the words 'Propter veritatem' whereas seven tracks earlier during the Annunciation it began at the start of the printed text:'Diffusa est gratia'. Carwood is the first director to present this music in appropriate liturgical combinations (i.e. unravelled), and through his programming the true ingenuity of Byrd's achievement becomes apparent. 

From a purely musical point of view this also offers us a really fascinating glimpse into how The Cardinall's Musick operate since none of these recurring works are performed in quite the same manner, each having its own definite mood. Propers for The Nativity of the Virgin, for instance, are marked by slower tempi and a more reflective atmosphere than was previously heard at Lady Mass, and the line-up of singers differs slightly also. All three sets of Propers on this album are for five voices and the first two have a lot of S, A, T textures that Carys Lane, Patrick Craig, and Jeremy Budd perform with a crystalline clarity and finesse. In the last set of Propers Rebecca Outram and David Gould bring a richer tone to their ensemble and although a subtle difference it adds interest to the album and allows some of the repeated sections to be heard with different voices. In between these Propers, The Hymns from the Little Office of the Virgin are presented in the order that they would be sung throughout the day. Four Hymns for ATB and two for four voices, one of which is an astonishingly beautiful setting performed SSST – Salve sola Dei genetrix. This paraphrase of the Ave Maria has a shimmering three-part upper-voice texture over the tenor line.

As I have written before, there can be few other ensembles that have achieved such a deep understanding of Byrd's music as The Cardinall's Musick and these volumes are notable for their conviction, their beauty of tone and also their integrity. This latter point is most noticeable in these Gradualia collections where the level of intimacy, especially in the three-voice settings, is palpable. However, as we begin to approach the end of the series I notice that there is still no recording of Infelix ego; could it be that Andrew Carwood is saving the best till last?

By Ed Breen


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