The Motets of William Byrd form a remarkable compendium of Latin sacred music, all the more so for being the work of a dissident Catholic composer working in a staunchly Protestant environment. Dating from the second half of the sixteenth-century, a period of intense religious turmoil, the Motets were written for private use in clandestine Catholic households, and published in three collections during the reign of Elizabeth I (despite her official opposition) with two further compilations under James I.
This King’s College survey is of nineteen Motets. No reason is given in the scholarly booklet note (which embraces texts and translations) for the absence of pieces associated with Christmas and Epiphany, otherwise the music (after Advent) makes an uninterrupted span from Candlemas to All Saints.
In view of the encyclopaedic thirteen-volume anthology from The Cardinall’s Musick, there’s nothing new in Stephen Cleobury’s compact approach, but few choirs of men and boys have focused so exclusively (ignoring the Masses) on these only-Latin texts. As well as Andrew Carwood’s relatively modest forces, there’s healthy competition from other professional ensembles, as well as Chapel Choirs from Oxbridge and several Cathedral Choirs. So can this King’s recording share shelf-space with alternatives?
On the plus side there’s a terrific sense of commitment from the King’s boys and choral scholars who sing with a gutsy tone, excellent intonation and, at times, intensity hard to beat elsewhere. Take the forthright opening of ‘Rorate coeli’ where trebles tear into their lines with an assurance and energy that has fabulous conviction, tenors grab the limelight too, their enthusiasm palpable, and the Chapel’s glorious acoustic lingers impressively. Cleobury secures warm tone from men and boys in ‘Ave verum’ (Corpus Christi) and beautifully sustained lines in ‘Iustorum animae’, overlapping phrases towards the close unfolding with a deep sense of musicality and understanding.
There are times, however, when the unrestrained vigour of the singing outstays its welcome as in the Easter motet ‘Haec Dies’ where the triumphant mood, appropriate as it may be, is unceasingly emphatic. Comparison with the leaner, more madrigalian style from Richard Marlow’s Choir of Trinity College reveals a less-determined manner. Both styles are valid, but when the next two selections on the King’s disc are similarly driven, the resultant effect is indigestible.
Choral scholars alone feature in four Motets where they relish the syncopated rhythms and complex polyphony, and the altos blaze a spectacular high-wire trial through ‘Vigilate’ and ‘Non vos relinquam orphanas’ that will bring a smile to many listeners. Attempts to find a softer-grained tone largely succeed in Lenten Motets, but the overall sound, pleasing though it may be, is monochrome and unwieldy.
These last observations point to several reservations I have related to dynamics, pace and tempos. With few exceptions Cleobury offers little contrast of volume within each piece, and the proximity of so many heavy-duty renditions (over-singing is a frequent problem) with a similar degree of resolution, does not do the music any favours, and elsewhere greater intimacy is needed to find certain settings’ emotional core. Lastly, many of the Motets tend to be on the fast side which further reduces any attempt at heartfelt devotional expression.
If the Choir’s youthful vitality mostly overrides these objections, providing you don’t listen to the disc at one sitting, it certainly leaves an undeniable sense that the English choral tradition is alive and flourishing.