The Golden Renaissance, Part 2

Program: #23-21   Air Date: May 22, 2023

To listen to this show, you must first LOG IN. If you have already logged in, but you are still seeing this message, please SUBSCRIBE or UPGRADE your subscriber level today.

The ensemble Stile Antico has begun a series celebrating great composers of the era; this week we are joined by the group to walk us through their new recording dedicated to William Byrd.

NOTE: All of the music on this program comes from the recording The Golden Renaissance: William Byrd featuring the ensemble Stile Antico. It is on the Decca label and is CD No. 485 3951.

From BBC Music: There will be many recordings of Byrd’s music in this 400th anniversary year of his death, but few will match the superb balance and poise of these performances from Stile Antico. Their selection focuses on his later collections, with works from his Gradualia (1605), Psalms, Songs and Sonnets (1611) and his Mass settings of the 1590s.

The title of the volume includes the word ‘Renaissance’ but Byrd’s music has little to do with the expressiveness and assertive individualism of the period. Instead much of his music is shaped by a background, slow moving ‘harmonic breathing’ which provides the engine of its momentum. Stile Antico capture this movement perfectly in Byrd’s reflection on approaching old age, ‘Retire My Soul’ and in ‘Praise our Lord all ye gentiles’ they use contrasting dynamics to give shape. Occasionally they turn the display of the notes into fleeting pictorialisms as with the overlapping alleluias at the end of Mary’s ascent into heaven (in ‘Assumpta est Maria’), made to suggest the beating of angels’ wings.

The greatest difficulties with formal shaping come in the Mass for Four Voices that the booklet ascribes to its ‘lack of precedent or borrowing’. In fact it is modeled on Taverner’s ‘Mean’ Mass, and quotes directly from it in the Sanctus and elsewhere. It is certainly difficult to inject much shape into the long doctrinal texts of the Gloria and Credo, but in the Agnus the singers capture perfectly the sheer beauty of Byrd’s musical vision, and through their performance we do too.

From Gramophone: Byrd’s later years are a fascinating time for Tudor music, and for his 400th anniversary Stile Antico dedicate a whole album to his works. It’s the second release in a trilogy that also celebrates anniversaries of Josquin Desprez and Palestrina.

Beginning with the potentially autobiographical song Retire, my soul, consider thine estate, Stile Antico pitch the music slightly lower and more wistfully than The Sixteen’s recent release. Comparing the two, there is an instant warmth about Stile Antico’s version; a fond, Werther’s Original hue that goes on to infuse the whole programme. And who’s to say that’s wrong? Certainly not Byrd scholar Kerry McCarthy, whose superb booklet note emphasises the ‘relative peace’ offered to the composer in his twilight years as he lived ‘under the protection of local Catholic gentry’. Built around a deeply moving performance of his Mass for Four Voices, the Propers for the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary are also performed. These are notoriously difficult pieces but Stile Antico sing them with great poise, particularly the complex flourishes in Propter veritatem. As an ensemble they also deftly navigate the many textural changes that Byrd demands, such as the exquisite three-part verse Assumpta est Maria, in which I especially enjoyed the imitation on ‘gaudet exercitus’.

Returning to ‘Psalmes, Song and Sonnets’: there is a freshness to Praise our Lord, all ye Gentiles that captures a little of Byrd’s defiance, especially in the extraordinary final Amen; more luxurious in The Sixteen’s slower version but quite thrilling at Stile Antico’s uncharacteristically brisk pace. Likewise, Turn our captivity, O Lord is superbly responsive to the text. Cleverly, the closing piece doubles back to a younger work, Tribue Domine from the cautiously named Cantiones, que ab argumento sacrae vocantur (‘Songs which on account of their subjects are called sacred’, 1575 – incidentally the first book of Latin-texted music ever printed in England). Nearly 450 years later, ‘Grant, O Lord, that while I am placed in this feeble body my heart shall praise thee’ inspires some of the richest singing I have heard from this ensemble.

  1. Retire, my soul
  2. Gaudeamus omnes in Domino
  3. Mass for Four Voices: Kyrie
  4. Mass for Four Voices: Gloria
  5. Propter veritatem
  6. Mass for Four Voices: Credo
  7. Assumpta est Maria
  8. Mass for Four Voices: Sanctus & Benedictus
  9. Optimam partem eligit
  10. Mass for Four Voices: Agnus Dei
  11. Turn our captivity, O Lord
  12. Praise our Lord, all ye Gentiles
  13. Laudate Dominum omnes gentes
  14. Tribue Domine

Composer Info

William Byrd

CD Info

Decca label CD No. 485 3951