We are delighted to present our seventh album, Byrd: Mass for five voices (2023) which was released on Friday 2 June 2023 and is now available to order.
About the CD William Byrd was born into a country tearing itself apart. In 1540, around the time of Byrd’s birth, King Henry VIII had just about finished his dismantling of England’s monasteries and convents, reminders of which exist in ruins around the country today. The Latin Mass was outlawed and substituted with a pared-down service, now in the vernacular. Writing music in a pre-Reformation style was a dangerous business, afforded only to those who courted royal favour.
This was perhaps not the easiest time to navigate a career as a composer working in religious circles as a recusant Catholic. Yet Byrd was clever. He chose texts with heterodox meanings, such as ‘gallows texts’—Latin psalm verses uttered by priests about to be martyred—which described overcoming opponents in order to liberate (an allegorical) Jerusalem. Such texts were later allowed by the Church under Elizabeth I, who retained a fondness for elaborate ritual.
At the heart of the collection of works on this album is Byrd’s Mass for five voices, probably the last of a set of three Masses he composed after his move from the Chapel Royal in London to Catholic hibernation in Stondon Massey, Essex. While the Mass text is ritual Latin, the music is deeply intertwined with the motets he wrote, many of which were composed with ‘notes as a garland to adorn certain holy and delightful phrases of the Christian rite’, as Byrd wrote in the preface to his second book of Gradualia (1607). Here we have selected a number of motets which complement the thematic, tonal and textural material of the Mass.
Many of us grew up performing these works in churches and chapels around the UK, and it was a joy to record this music in All Hallows, Gospel Oak, the construction of which was completed some 280 years after Byrd’s death. While we could have chosen a more intimate, secluded venue to recreate the circumstances for which Byrd found himself composing, in preparing this music for record we found ourselves wanting to take the music off the page, released from the baggage of its creation, and to enjoy the full expressive potential of the writing. These Latin works are all triumphant statements of belief, exhibiting great power and tenderness, and all with a degree of contentment despite the tribulations surrounding their creation. We hope this comes across in our performances—both live and on disc—and look forward to discovering more of Byrd’s compositions throughout our careers. Owain Park © 2023
“These are brilliant performances. The motets are artfully sequenced so as to place the mass movements under the microscope, and these six singers, if possible, are getting even more uncannily accurate with each new outing. Sample the gorgeous initial gesture of Ave verum corpus, where the voices take on almost woodwind-like tones. The more emotionally intense texts receive special emphasis; Tristitia et anxietas both introduces the Credo of the mass and refers to the difficult situation of Byrd and his co-religionists. … A moving, often breathtaking release.” – All Music (James Manheim)
“They sounded so intensely beautiful, perfectly tuned in resonance. … The way the vocal lines unfold in Byrd’s mass for five voices and the control of the final flowering of the Agnus Dei is beautiful to hear – quietly ecstatic. … A well made programme, with the movements of the mass interwoven with Byrd’s motets … It makes an excellent 400th anniversary for him!” – BBC Radio 3 (Andrew McGregor)
Ave verum corpus William Byrd (1539/40-1623)
Afflicti pro peccatis nostris William Byrd
Tristitia et anxietas William Byrd
Ave Maria William Byrd
Circumdederunt me William Byrd
Emendemus in melius William Byrd
Lamentations (De lamentatione Jeremiae prophetae) William Byrd
Mass for five voices William Byrd