In July 1923, as part of the London celebrations commemorating the Tercentenary of the death of William Byrd, an audience heard the first performance for some considerable time of the composer’s ‘Great Service’ at Westminster Abbey in the context of Evensong. The manuscript had been found the previous year in the Library of Durham Cathedral by Edmund Fellowes who at the time was researching the music of Orlando Gibbons. Fellowes later became Byrd’s biographer. One of the people attending the London event was Canon Reeve of Stondon Massey, who knew Fellowes well and was instrumental in the commemoration of Byrd at Stondon Massey Church by way of a Memorial Tablet on the south wall. Reeve described the Great Service as a “glorious effect produced by the 200 trained voices as the melodies floated around the pillars and arcades of the sacred building”.
The ‘Great Service’ is so named because of its length and size in terms of choral parts. It is set for two choirs of five voices. There are seven “movements”, which are settings for Morning and Evening Prayer as well as the Communion Service. It was one of very few works Byrd composed in English for the Reformed (Anglican) Church. It was never published during his lifetime.
Joining the list of recordings of the work is one by The Cardinall’s Musick under their director Andrew Carwood. (Available on Hyperion Records from 1 October 2012: CDA67937.) It was a work sung at the opening concert of their ‘Byrd Tour’ at the Wigmore Hall in March. Those who attended two successful concerts at St Peter & St Paul Church Stondon Massey on 2 September were able to purchase “advance” copies.
To my knowledge there are five recordings of the Great Service available. I own three, so in ‘Building A Library’ fashion I listened to all movements back to back. (I must add that I am not in any way a musician but like Byrd’s work, and so my view is one based on the enjoyment.) The two discs not in my collection are by The Tallis Scholars under Peter Phillips (2001) and a very recent offering (June 2012) by Musica Contexta on Chandos records complete with sackbuts and cornets. Having listened to clips of the recording on Amazon I am not convinced about the interpretation. Maybe I am a purist preferring those with organ accompaniment.
My three contenders are:
The Choir of Westminster Abbey directed by James O’Donnell (Hyperion CDA67533, released 2005).
The Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, directed by Stephen Cleobury (EMI Digital CDC 7 47771 2, released 1987).
The Cardinall’s Musick directed by Andrew Carwood (Hyperion CDA67937, to be released 1.10.12).
The King’s version comprises two trebles, three altos, three tenors and two basses. Listening to the opening ‘Venite’ you are struck that this is a quieter, perhaps more introspective performance than the others and is presented in the Evening Service portion of the disc as a Service for Ascension Day. The presentation is a little sweet for my liking, perhaps hesitant. The ‘Magnificat’ is not the slowest of the three recordings but seems to come to a halt at a point just before midway, before continuing … “and the rich he hath sent empty away” seemed desolate; then another pause. The ‘Nunc Dimittis’ is a little disappointing. It’s pleasant enough but the diction is not as clear as the others so maybe the dynamic sound Byrd envisaged is a little lost.
The Westminster Abbey recording has a richer sound with organ accompaniment by Robert Quinney. (Andrew Carwood writes the notes in the booklet.) This is a lovely recording. The final words of the ‘Benedictus’, “Glory be to the Father … “ and the ‘Kyrie’ are sung with real conviction. The trebles give their all in the ‘Creed’, perhaps a little too much. Byrd’s musicianship can be heard in the line of the ‘Magnificat’ with everyone taking a turn singing “all generations shall call me blessed” – related and inclusive. When the “rich are sent empty away” we are reminded more in voice of the link with the preceding lines about the good things they have missed. The disc’s layout is again in two parts – Matins and Evensong – with anthems framing the main work. These days, of course, we can select individual tracks at will. It’s a nice recording and recommended if you believe that only male voices should sing Byrd.
The Cardinall’s Musick is a quite different offering: profound. From the off you are aware of the voices blended in ‘O Come, let us sing unto the Lord’, but equally the sum of the individual parts. The organist, again Robert Quinney, provides a supporting accompaniment which is never intrusive. If Andrew Carwood’s theory is right that Byrd intended the Great Service as a farewell piece to his friends at the Chapel Royal (according to the notes in the booklet), then you can understand through this recording how interaction between each of the singers work. Is there a choral parallel with Ralph Vaughan Williams’ ‘Serenade to Music’, specifically written with sixteen leading British soloists in mind? Mozart wrote Horn Concertos for his friend. So is it not fanciful to suggest Byrd did the same for his friends? Trebles in this recording are replaced by sopranos. But if there is any notion that this is a less spiritual presentation because it is by an ensemble rather than a cathedral choir, think again. The shortest movement, ‘Kyrie’ is beautiful and the most penitential of all three recordings (perhaps because it is the most expansive at 1’12 rather than 1’01 – a photo finish – for both of the other recordings). The sound is very clear and listeners don’t need the text in the booklet to hear the words. The crafting of the words “… according to the scriptures …“in the Creed is sublime. Then the Evening Service starts with “My soul doth magnify the Lord” in rapturous joy. A magnificent ‘Magnificat’: in the phrase “filled the humble with good things” – how good are the good things! The words “... for my eyes have seen thy salvation” in the ‘Nunc Dimittis’ with the rising notes of “eyes” seems to lift the voice to heaven. The five anthems at the end of the programme are hardly fillers. Turn this up in your living room! If this doesn’t win a Gramophone Award I’ll eat my Hymn Book!
King’s College / Cleobury: ***
Westminster Abbey / O’Donnell: ****
Cardinall’s Musick / Carwood: *******