BYRD: Motets – The Choir of King’s College/ Stephen Cleobury 

BYRD: Motets – The Choir of King’s College, Cambridge/ Stephen Cleobury – King’s College, Cambridge KGS0024, 56:12 ****:

William Byrd, the most famous English recusant (with Thomas Tallis a close second), may also be the greatest English composer who ever lived (peace, Henry Purcell). But his Latin music, as that found on this disc, was never performed in church as it was illegal. The settings that were graced with his music mostly revolved around private homes or other clandestine places where England’s recusant Catholics could celebrate Mass or the other sundry services of the traditional pre-Reformation Latin rites. His five collections of Latin sacred music are even more impressive as he continued his “day” job at Lincoln providing music for his Anglican employers.

Of course, Byrd’s music would have had numerous and varied performing forces in such hidden settings, from the barest minimum (perhaps a solo line with small organ accompaniment) to large-scale in the more affluent houses. Conductor Stephen Cleobury admits such in a promotional video, stating that there were many ways to perform this music, and the choice he made on this disc represents only one possible view.

Portrait of William Byrd

William Byrd

So, what is this view? Well, first, this collection would never have been performed in the order on this disc. These motets are from all sorts of liturgical situations, given as a broad collection in order allow us to get a good idea of Byrd’s corpus, yet they are listed in the order that would be found in the pre-Reformation liturgical calendar, beginning with Advent. Unlike some earlier, much earlier, King’s College recordings, this one is quite adventurous in presenting this music in an up-front, if not aggressive, style that adds excitement and a visceral sense of emotive fervency. In all honesty, this is probably not what most listeners of Byrd’s time experienced, and a criticism here could be that these performances lack intimacy. But then again, this is one example of what Byrd’s music can sound like when performed in optimal circumstances, and who can say how he would have preferred it?

The sound is excellent, the choir equally adept (though a comparison with the motets album from 1965 with David Willcocks is worth pursuing), and if you can tolerate a whole album of motets, this one will not disappoint.

Tracklist:
Rorate coeli
Vigilate
Hodie beata virgo Maria
Senex puerem portabat
Ne irascaris Domine
Civitas sancti tui
Terra tremuit
Haec dies
Tollite portas
Alleluia. Ascendit Deus. Dominus in Sina
Factus est repente
Non vos relinquam orphanos
O lux beata Trinitas
Laudibus in sanctis
Ave verum corpus
Sacerdotes Domini
Iustorum animae
O quam gloriosum est regnum
Ave Maria

—Steven Ritter

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