Concert: St Barnabas Church, Jericho, Oxford

by Simon Collings (The Oxford Times - 4th April 2012)

Easter came early at St Barnabas’ Church in a concert of William Byrd’s sacred music. The renowned vocal ensemble The Cardinall’s Musick is touring a series of concerts of Byrd’s music. On Friday they were in Oxford.

In the first half they performed Byrd’s glorious four-part Mass with the addition of texts for Easter Sunday. In the second half we heard a series of other pieces composed for the Easter liturgy, using various combinations of voices.

Byrd was a Catholic when adherence to that faith in England could cost you your life. His Mass setting dates from 1582–83 and would only have been performed in private. The music is imbued with a sense of darkness and persecution. The Agnus Dei is a moving appeal for release. The Easter Sunday settings, in contrast, are vivid and exuberant. There is expressive word painting in these pieces, for example the elaborate ending of the Gradual and the vocal exchanges depicting the conflict between death and life in Victimae paschali.

The lovely six-part setting of Haec Dies which opened the second half is well known but some of the other works the group performed are less often heard. One particular curiosity was a processional Psalm setting to which Byrd contributed three verses, with John Sheppard and William Mundy providing the other sections. Byrd was a teenager when he wrote this. The motet Deus in Adjutorium, which closed the advertised programme, brought us back to the mood of Passiontide with its appeal for help in time of trouble. As an encore the group sang Tallis’s Te lucis ante terminum.

The Cardinall’s Musick make an exquisite sound. The ensemble’s performance throughout showed consistent attention to Byrd’s colouring of the text. Their award-winning recordings of the complete Latin works of Byrd are available on Hyperion.