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William Byrd: Three Masses

Parthenia XVI
Dir.: Mary Jane Newman

rec: March/May 1999, Bedford, NY, St Matthew's Episcopal Church
Centaur - CRC 2471 (64'57")

Mass for 3 voices; Mass for 4 voices; Mass for 5 voices

There are several recordings of Byrd's three masses available. I can't see any reason for another one, and certainly not this one. Some strange decisions have been taken as far as the performance practice is concerned.
That starts with the decision to perform these masses with 11 to 14 singers. William Byrd composed his three masses for 3, 4 and 5 voices respectively between 1592 and 1595. In that time it was forbidden to compose or publish music for the Roman Catholic liturgy. Nevertheless, these masses were published. Byrd's reputation was such that he wasn't fined or jailed for it. But since the Roman Catholics weren't allowed to celebrate masses in public, it is very likely they were performed in the home of Sir John Petrie, the leader of the Catholic community. And that means that they must have been sung with very few singers, perhaps even with one voice per part. This is written in the booklet. So then why are these masses performed by a choir?
Even if that could be accepted, the performance of the 3-part Mass certainly can't. One of the features of this mass is the concise character of the Kyrie. The three sections - Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison - are reduced by Byrd to one phrase each. So the decision to sing all three of them twice destroys this special character. If Byrd would have wanted this he would have asked for it. But it gets even worse: in the repeat of the Christe section, the sopranos get involved by doubling the tenor part. And later in the mass the same thing is done, without any pattern. This practice fundamentally changes the whole character of this work. Byrd hasn't written this mass for lower voices for no reason.
In view of this it doesn't really matter that the performance as such is a little boring and lacks expression. This CD can't be recommended.

Johan van Veen ( 2002)

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