Upheld by stillness: Renaissance gems and their reflection, volume 1: Byrd

ORA, Suzi Digby
78:00
HWM 906102
De Monte+ Bray, L’Estrange, Panufnik, Park, Pott & Williams

This is the first in a series of discs which I am told will be released at a rate of two a year for five years. Each will feature a work by a Renaissance master, plus several choral works inspired by the Renaissance work in question and commissioned by ORA, a select choir which could equally be named The Usual Suspects. That flippantly said, the singers combine to create an ensemble which lives up to their reputations. They sensibly launch the series with what it says on the tin, a masterpiece by a master, Byrd’s Mass for Five Voices. No gems come more sparkling than this. The choir also sings two other works by Byrd: the famous Ave verum corpus from his first book of Gradualia  (1605) and the substantial unpublished Quomodo cantabimus  paired as is rather boringly usual on disc with Philippe de Monte’s companion piece Super flumina Babylonis.

The performance of the Mass itself is beautiful. Just occasionally in the longer movements one could perhaps wish for the balance to favour the inner parts a fraction more, and throughout Byrd’s contributions there were moments when a bit more pneumatic drill from the basses would have been welcome. Tempi just tip over into the brisk side. The corollary of this is that the interpretation misses that last elusive pinch of memorability. I should like to think that even if I had not initially known the identity of the performers, the recording of the Mass by The Choir of Westminster Cathedral (Hyperion CDA68038) would still have conveyed to me the profound aura of devotion, derived from their theological and liturgical engagement with the work, which radiates from this recording. From another perspective, the recording by Stile Antico (Harmonia Mundi HMU 807572), although sung by musicians who seem to have been nurtured in the Anglican tradition, is nevertheless a profoundly thoughtful performance as devout in its own way as Westminster Cathedral’s. It is a complete pleasure to listen to the recording by ORA, and its beauty impacts powerfully, but is fractionally short of the profundity of those other two. Ever since the pioneering disc by King’s College Cambridge under David Willcocks, there have been some wonderful recordings of this work – the Elizabethan Singers on the old Saga label, and St John’s College Cambridge originally on the budget Classics for Pleasure to name but two contrasting versions – but as Suzy Digby remarks in her notes for the recording, we are in a glittering age of choral performing, and ORA’s version – alongside those other recent versions by Westminster Cathedral and Stile Antico – most effectively illustrate and confirm this with their recordings of Byrd’s Mass.

Furthermore, while ORA’s performances of Monte’s Super flumina  and Byrd’s Ave verum  are as good as that of the Mass, their version of Byrd’s Quomodo  has a good claim to be among the finest of the eight-and-counting now recorded, all of them by outstanding ensembles at the top of their respective games. Whereas some versions emphasize the massiveness of Byrd’s construction, or respond to the tension of the presumed subtext, or to the sheer virtuosity of the writing, ORA’s version possesses an airiness that sets it apart from the others, while not defaulting to blandness or mere beauty for its own sake, and is at the opposite pole from the slower, pensive, anxious and almost resigned interpretation which is one of the highlights on The Cardinall’s Musick Byrd Edition (disc 3 of 13, ASV CD GAU 179). This deserves to be a deciding factor for purchasers interested in a programme that combines a Renaissance classic with modern commissions which respond to it.

The majority of the half dozen pieces premiered on this disc do the old master proud. The composers were asked to set their own reactions to the individual movements of the Mass. Not all of the composers use the texts in their responses to Byrd’s settings, but Roxanna Panufnik does so in her Kyrie after Byrd, and produces a stunning piece that contains echoes of the music and momentum of the original, but which is a strikingly personal reaction to the text, subtly varying Byrd’s structure and exploiting the possibilities of a six-part choir (with an extra bass) both vertically and horizontally, in reduced and, especially, full scoring. Francis Pott has already established his Byrdian credentials in his excellent Mass for Eight Parts  and for his take on Byrd’s Gloria he sets Laudate Dominum. After an unpromising beginning, when I began to dread some bombastic pastiche, the work develops magnificently into a sustained emulation of Byrd’s intense creativity, its five parts sounding like more. Alexander L’Estrange’s text employs passages from the Credo beside excerpts from, amongst others, Byrd’s will and John Donne’s poem Show me, deare Christ  which gives the work its title. Regrettably this causes the work to lack cohesion and momentum, as does the use of several musical styles (besides bits of Byrd I detected moments of Monteverdi, though I do not know whether the composer intended this) and I am afraid my concentration began to wander before the middle of this piece. The title for the entire disc is provided by Owain Park’s Upheld by stillness, a setting of Kathleen Raine’s poem The word  responding to Byrd’s Sanctus. I really hate saying this about works by young aspiring musicians such as Alexander and Owain, but I feel much the same about the latter’s setting as I do about Alexander’s, and believe that both men could do with the musical equivalent of a good literary sub-editor to tell them where and how to take out the unnecessary, sluggish and, I am afraid, self-indulgent bits, because there are good passages within both pieces. Unfortunately the downsides are all too readily exposed by their proximity to the preceding pieces by Roxanna and Francis, and by Charlotte Bray’s Agnus Dei  in which the composer fearlessly follows Byrd’s structure but sings out with a confident individual voice, again exploiting polyphony and homophony while sustaining the narrative momentum which is always an essential element in Byrd’s own music. I do not know any more of Charlotte’s music (a situation I intend to rectify soon) but her curriculum vitae is evidence of an outstanding talent, a fact that I can well believe on the basis of hearing this beautiful and challenging response to one of Byrd’s greatest and most deeply felt pieces.

This level of modern creativity is sustained in the final piece on the disc, Ave verum corpus  re-imagined by Roderick Williams, which grabs one by the ears and the throat from the start, and continues with a steady momentum exploiting both massive homophony and ecstatic polyphony. It is a fine and striking work in its own right and, like the other new pieces by Roxanna, Francis and Charlotte, deserves to become a standard repertory item in both sacred and secular musical environments. All four are worthy of their original.

Even if one already possesses one or more versions of Byrd’s Mass for Five Voices  – and it is a work which invites and can bear any number of interpretations – it is well worth owning the disc under review, to hear the Mass in this accomplished performance by ORA in the company of some outstanding modern compositions which respond to it, with the bonus of Byrd’s best-known motet, plus one of the finest recordings of his increasingly popular large-scale unpublished masterpiece Quomodo cantabimus. Be tempted, give in.

Richard Turbet

NOTE: As we received only a promotional copy, Richard has been unable to award stars for the contents of the booklet or the overall presentation of the finished product.