Motets and Mass for four voices
The Theatre of Voices
Judith Nelson soprano
Drew Minter countertenor
Paul Elliot tenor
Paul Hillier baritone, artistic director
Christopher Bowers-Broadbent organ
Recorded February 1992, The Cathedral of the Transfiguration, Toronto
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Paul Hillier
William Byrd (1543-1623) has been called the greatest English composer, an arbiter of the sublime and master of his craft. And while discerning early music listeners have a fair number of recordings to choose from in order to put any stake into this claim, this offering from ECM is as sensitive an introduction as any into all things Byrd.
Among the selection of motets that inaugurates the album, Byrd’s gradual “Oculi ominum” stands out for its elegance. Yet it is the Mass for Four Voices that kneels so humbly at the album’s center. Composed in 1592, a time when Catholic services were deemed illegal under the banner of the Reformation, the Mass was never performed in a proper church until the nineteenth century. This backstory lends a clandestine sweetness to the work’s appearance. Its plaintive Kyrie and Gloria journey into the stunning tapestry that is its Credo, while the Sanctus and Benedictus lean back in a delicate arch of praise and humility toward an alluring, if not cryptic, Agus Dei. The notes are generally low- to mid-range, with peaks used only sparingly. As it is programmed here, the Mass is interleaved with introspective keyboard works (played here on organ) and the motet O sacrum convivium. Such a fragmentary approach emphasizes its permeability, its invisibility (the work was believed lost from 1822 to 1888).
Not to be overshadowed, however, is the handful of contemporaneous works that rounds out the program. These no-less-powerful statements from Thomas Tallis, John Taverner, Richard Edwards, and John Sheppard throw Byrd’s place in musical history into further relief. Tallis’s O Ye Tender Babes is especially poignant, harkening back to a time when musical freedom was relatively unbounded.
The Theatre of Voices has a sound that is quite distinct from the Hilliard Ensemble, ECM’s a cappella mainstay. Their vocal lines are crystal clear, allowing us to parse every moment of Byrd’s glorious grammar. The music is elegiac, even as it falls inward, charting a highly individual spiritual territory that is all the more enriched by Byrd’s attention to textual colors, transcending form as it does by unhinging the cages of his own vocabulary. There is always an audible axle around which his music revolves. Every note engenders a new spin of the wheel, and with it an unrequited aspiration. This process is ever bolstered by the constant wind of human breath, every inhalation and exhalation of which marks the music’s trajectory with the utmost craftsmanship. This is neither the alchemy of a Guillaume de Machaut nor the dense weave of a Robert Fayrfax, but rather its own foray into unraveled grace.