Concert: St George’s, Bristol

by Rian Evans (The Guardian - 10 March 2012)

Recordings by Cardinall’s Musick of William Byrd’s work have been a landmark worthy of one of England’s greatest masters. The ensemble have now embarked on a major tour performing all of Byrd’s Latin church music, working through the liturgical year in sequence. No matter how fine the discs, experiencing the vibrant and gutsy sound live in St George’s brought a compelling immediacy to this meeting of two Elizabethan eras.

With Sunday marking the beginning of Passiontide, the first half was devoted to Byrd’s Mass for Four Voices, interpolating the St John Passion intended for Good Friday. Familiar as we are with Bach’s Passions, the simplicity and directness of Byrd’s Latin setting has its own implicit drama.

Director Andrew Carwood sang the Evangelist narrator, with bass James Birchall the grave, compassionate voice of Jesus, and tenor William Balkwill sang the various roles of Synagoga, notably the sympathetic then frustrated Pilate. Most remarkable was Byrd’s treatment of the crowd, with their angry and increasingly bloodthirsty outburts. The motet Plorans Ploravit was also inserted between the Sanctus and the Agnus Dei of the mass. Its mournful tone was palpably present, but so, too, were the political barbs that Byrd as a Popish recusant – refusing to attend Church of England services – defiantly wove into his scores. Carwood’s occasional reduction of the texture to single voices, in contrast to the resonant polyphony of the eight singers together, always ensured primacy of the text.

The second half’s six sacred motets continued the penitential theme. In all, the expressions of grief were subtly weighted to heighten the sense of progress towards consolation. Yet it was the poignant repetitions in the Ave Verum Corpus that had the most breathtaking beauty.