From the priest-hole era

02 November 2006


WILLIAM BYRD's three Latin Masses, for three, four, and five voices, were composed not for use in church - the ninefold Kyrie, the Benedictus, and the Agnus Dei were not part of the Prayer Book rite at that time, even its Latin version - but for celebration in the secrecy of recusants' private dwellings.

They were first issued in the 1590s, when Byrd's Roman Catholic sympathies were known to, and accepted by, Elizabeth I. A decade later, in James I's reign - not long after the Gunpowder Plot - Byrd published his Gradualia. This was a huge undertaking, which made motets out of the liturgical propers for the principal feasts of the calendar.

It is extremely rare to be able to relish all three of Byrd's Masses at one hearing, and sung by a tip-top choir. The latest concert by Ex Cathedra, directed by Jeffrey Skidmore, in the wonderful rounded acoustic of the Birmingham Oratory, provided a glorious opportunity to compare the different treatments and varying textures in these three magnificent settings. For the Mass for Five Voices, Gradualia items were also included.

The Gloria of the Mass for Four Voices sets off almost dapperly, before the swell of the voices proclaiming laudamus te. Especially beautiful were the appealing Domine Deus, and the surge of the Ex Cathedra voices at the alto-led Qui sedes ad dexteram; likewise the opening up of the textures in the incarnation passage of the Credo, whose warm, easeful flow extends - perhaps surprisingly - into the Crucifixus section. By contrast, Et resurrexit seemed almost militaristic and triumphalist.

The Sanctus has an easy, lilting feel, and the Osanna creeps up almost unnoticed; by contrast, in the Benedictus the Osannas emerge like a rippling soft peal of bells. Especially effective was the way sopranos and altos first and then lower voices (with sopranos added) led in the Agnus Dei, which culminates in an extended third section (Dona nobis pacem) like a gorgeously lulling coda.


This was singing of the highest order, beautifully phrased, finely balanced, and carefully thought through. Within the rise and fall of the counterpoint, each voice seemed instinctively to sense when to emerge more prominently or to hold back. Few choirs match Ex Cathedra at its finest.

The Mass for Three Voices, sung at the start, began as just that, with the exquisitely tender intoning of the Kyrie by three solo voices, before the full ATB choir brought yearning and intensity to the third Kyrie. There were many striking points of detail: some dramatic pointing of the tenor line midway through the Gloria; splendidly full-bodied singing for Tu solus altissimus, and beautiful care at the final cadence.

Jeffrey Skidmore's preceptive pacing brought out the wonderful serenity of the Sanctus here, yielding to growing excitement  in the Osannas; the sensitive opening of the Benedictus is one of the loveliest passages in all Byrd's output; again, it was intoned here by just three solo voices.

The presentation of the second Agnus Dei by tenors and basses alone was especially catchy. The way the wonderful flow of the final Agnus caught the enabling echoes of the curved east end of the Oratory confirmed the wisdom of Ex Cathedra in making this building, with its invigorating acoustic, a principal performing venue.

There was much to savour in the five-part Mass, too - not least the delicate opening to the Kyries, the beautiful reduced textures Byrd brings to the Filium Patris section of the Gloria, the serene bass lead to Suscipe deprecationem, the almost mellow launch to the Credo, and the splendid canons midway through the Sanctus.

But the most striking part of this second half, beside a sprightly delivery of the motet Timete Dominum, was the beautiful purity Ex Cathedra brought to Byrd's serene motet Iustorum animae (The souls of the righteous). It seemed remarkable for so large a choir to achieve so pure and unadulterated a tone as all four voices brought to this moving text.

The words Illi autem sunt in pace illustrated perfectly Byrd's own assertion that the power of sacred texts is such that they seem able, when diligently reflected and pondered upon, to inspire the right musical setting almost instinctively, as of themselves.


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