BYRD: “The Three Masses”; Ave verum corpus – Choir of Westminster Cathedral/ Martin Baker – Hyperion CDA68038, 71:30 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] [9/9/14] ****:
William Byrd wrote these masses in quick succession between—approximately—1592-1595, right after publishing his two collections of Sacred Songs. The masses are unusual in that they contain no parody movements, and in fact no quotes of any kind from any other source. He is insistent on providing a connection with the Tudor past, and carefully sets the words in a most intimate and personal manner. In truth, these pieces might have been performed by only very small numbers of singers in conditions that could prove politically dangerous. Byrd himself dies the Crown’s good subject, but one wonders if his talent for music had not existed whether he would have suffered the fate of so many of his friends—detained, arrested, exiled, imprisoned, and too often—executed.
Such was the life of a recusant in the Elizabethan era, though Byrd most willingly supplied the music for all sorts of the new religion’s demands. Today, in a more tolerant environment, the same forces that once repressed Byrd’s Catholic scores have now been presenting it quite frequently, and one and all can hear what treasures lay in those hidden and tucked away scores which never enjoyed prominence. It is exceedingly advantageous having them all on one disc as here, along with Byrd’s most beloved composition, the Ave verum corpus taken from the set of Gradualia, settings of liturgical texts from the Catholic Calendar from Advent to Trinity, and now a staple of Anglican choruses as well. Martin Baker’s sumptuous Westminster Cathedral Choir is top notch in this recording made at the Cathedral, and there is much to commend this to all lovers of William Byrd—and perhaps convert a few.