Byrd: The three masses

Review by: David Vernier

Artistic Quality: 10

Sound Quality: 10

In 1992, Paul Hillier and his Theatre of Voices recorded the Byrd four-part mass with literally four voices–soprano Judith Nelson, countertenor Drew Minter, tenor Paul Eliot, and baritone Hillier. The result (which, like many other recordings of these masses, is interspersed with “Propers”–in this case for the Feast of Corpus Christi) is a too-closely recorded, dynamic, and deeply felt performance, hampered by Minter’s forced, unnatural quality and an overall undernourished ensemble juiced up by the engineering. No such problems occur here. These are solid, rich-textured, perfectly balanced performances whose only fault may be in a seemingly determined effort to bring Byrd’s sincere, reverent works from church to theatre. No question, Hillier emphasizes the more dramatic possibilities of the flowing, lyrical lines and finds intense energy in the rhythms of these gorgeous works, especially in the powerfully affecting four-part mass. There’s no more moving Agnus Dei than the one that concludes Byrd’s four-part setting, and here it’s given its most convincingly gripping performance, even slightly edging the Tallis Scholars’ exemplary rendition. However, you can’t beat the Tallis Scholars’ overall performances of all three masses for sheer command of the music’s subtleties of phrasing and tonal purity. Nevertheless, if this Hillier/Pro Arte Singers set is your only version of these masterpieces you won’t be disappointed. As these American singers prove, you certainly don’t have to be English to “get” the proper Byrdian style, and you don’t have to come from a centuries-old tradition to project the requisite spirituality inherent in these works. Although I’ll still hang on to my Tallis Scholars and (out of print) Sixteen performances, I’ll not hesitate to recommend this Pro Arte Singers effort for newcomers to this essential, monumental repertoire. [5/25/2002]

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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Tallis Scholars (Gimell), Christ Church Cathedral (Nimbus), Sixteen (Virgin)

WILLIAM BYRD - The Three Masses

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