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.