Infelix Ego-Byrd Edition Vol.13
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The final volume of The Cardinall's Musick's award-winning Byrd series includes some of the composer's most sublime and adventurous music, drawn in the main from the 1591 Cantiones Sacrae collection. Throughout this series it has become evident that a comprehensive survey such as this shows the genius of the composer in a uniquely effective way. Andrew Carwood describes Byrd as the greatest composer of the age as he writes, "If there is an English musician who comes close to Shakespeare in his consummate artistry, his control over so many genres and his ability to speak with emotional directness it must be William Byrd." The title track of this volume, Infelix ego, is the crowning glory of Byrd's achievement and one of the greatest artistic statements of the sixteenth century. This remarkable text, taking the form of a number of rhetorical statements and questions, shows the gamut of emotion from a soul in torment to the joy of release when Christ's mercy is accepted. It can be seen as a microcosm of Byrd's sacred music and a fitting crown to this series.
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My only disappointment was I thought at first this was going to be the last in the series. However, it turns out this is only the last CD of Byrd's Latin church music. There is still his English choral music which I believe they are going to continue to record, or at least they promised this on the first disc in the series, where they said the Byrd series would conclude with The Great Service.
What you have here is the culmination of an understanding that is greater than the sum of it's parts. The voice parts are well balanced (although on poor playback equipment such as MP3 players, the sound is weighted towards the sopranos) and allowed equal room to breathe. The melody dances clearly between one voice part to another and the tuning is consistently first class. The highlight of the disc is the title track and Carwood clearly understands the demands that the music makes both on the singer and of the listener - and he undoubtedly challenges the listener with a reading that is invigorating and arresting in equal measure. Of all the recordings out there of this music, Carwood and his singers produce what is undoubtedly the cream of the crop. It simply does not get any better than this.
The series was conceived by Sanctuary records and has been completed by Hyperion, and the earlier hope of including the English music will not, in all probability, be realised. Having said that, Carwood and his group have recently wrapped up a recording of a Palestrina mass with 4 organs - which will be with us in 2011. Similar diversions may allow them to revisit the remaining works of Byrd with renewed enthusiasm.
Taken as a whole, the Byrd project is a remarkable achievement and may never be equaled. Let us hope that Palestrina, Lassus, Victoria and the rest will have their day.
1) There's too much scooping and sagging (rising to the pitch or falling off the pitch), especially among the highest voices. But then, for me, any scooping and/or sagging is too much.
2) The tenors sound "neutral". Reserved. Supportive rather than expressive. Bad news. In this music the tenor line HAS to be full of expression.
3) There seem to be too many voices on too many parts, which is surprising because the ensemble has only twelve singers here. The result is that old 'choral' sound of broad-band tuning-by-committee.
4) Besides which, there's some outright bad tuning here and there, suggesting either inadequate rehearsal or a lack of draconian attention from the conductor, Andrew Carwood.
It's hard to separate the performance from the specific music on this CD. There are surely some distinctive small pieces - some of the Propers for the Feast of All Saints (Halloween to Americans) - and the longest single piece, the title track Infelix ego, has musical profundities in it. But the whole performance seems less 'committed' and energetic than I expected from this ensemble. The standard of excellence, to my ears, was volume 10, "Laudibus in sanctis", a set of polyphonic antiphons sung so well that I tossed a wad of money at five other volumes of the series. I'm hoping they all turn out closer to V. 10 than V. 13 in quality.
This collection is taken largely from Byrd's Cantiones Sacrae of 1591 and is a lovely, varied selection reflecting exuberant worship, meditative reflection and the pain of exile - always close to Byrd's heart as a recusant Catholic in Elizabeth's Protestant England. Infelix ego, the final piece on the disc, is simply sublime. It is a large-scale masterpiece of compositional skill whose effect is overwhelmingly emotionally involving. Andrew Carwood calls it "one of the greatest artistic statements of the sixteenth century," and once you've listened to this performance you will be hard pressed to argue. It forms a marvellous climax to an outstanding series of recordings.
The performances are, as always from The Cardinall's Musick, simply fabulous. Technically perfect, the group show a marvellous empathy for and understanding of Byrd's music, and the combination of this and the very good recording in a resonant acoustic which complements but never blurs the sound produces something really special.
The notes are excellent and the presentation is very attractive. This is a terrific disc all round, and very highly recommended.