Beaucoup d'argent! Geld! Plata! Penga! Scudi! Because this innocuous CD is VOLUME TEN of The Cardinall's Musick recordings of the works of William Byrd (1539-1623). And it's good! Very good, far better than I expected, since I'm usually skeptical of choral recordings of polyphony. More voices may amount to grandeur in a live performance, in a grand old abbey, but on a CD more voices often merely mean more distortion and spattered attacks. The Cardinall's Musick, conducted by Andrew Carwood, is a chorus of four women and eight men, with the alto part shared by one woman and two countertenors, and with only one true bass. Honestly, that has never sounded promising to me, and I've ignored the group's recording for many years already. But my instincts were wrong. This bunch can sing with tight ensemble! Most of the compositions on this CD are five-part, and some of them sound like one-on-a-part even when they aren't. The tuning is glorious, the horizontal independence of expression is spellbinding, the polyphony is so transparent that you can hear all five lines distinctly, the recording technology is good enough to quell distortion and to give very fine directional separation of voices, and best of all, you can't "hear" the beat of the conductor's baton. If the other nine volumes are as good as this, I've just cost myself well over $100.00!!!
William Byrd's music is florid and passionate, closer in expressive affect to that of Johannes Ockeghem than to the Apollonian tranquillity of Josquin or Palestrina. That comparison - to the greatest of Renaissance polyphonists - puts Byrd in the company he deserves. Just as Ockeghem's music can sound improvisatory and Dionysian, Byrd's seems to crest above musical theory and rules of counterpoint, and to flow in every direction like a river of sound in flood. The composer's spiritual passion may have been fueled by his 'threatened' situation as a recusant Catholic in Elizabethan England. He was linked intimately with some of the leading Catholics of the times, several of whom were tried and imprisoned for treason or treasonous beliefs. Much of Byrd's music had to be published outside of England, and Byrd spent the better part of his life in rural isolation from the musical establishments of the Court and the major churches. The compositions on this CD come from Byrd's "Cantiones Sacrae" of 1591 or from his "Gradualia" of 1605, and thus represent Byrd at the peak of his development. You'll be pleasantly surprised at the variety of affect and tempo in this music; scholars give Byrd high marks for attuning his phrases to the texts he was setting, and even though rather few people today can comprehend Latin on hearing, the texts seem to carry meaning, emotional meaning at least, in Byrd's melodies.
Parting thought: "A Byrd in the cart is worth ten on the browser."