by Marc Rochester (International Record Review - February 2010)

When Andrew Carwood writes in the introduction to this disc that Elizabethan England produced ‘an amazing array of artistic talent’, he might just as easily have been referring to our own age. Certainly some of England’s finest current vocal talent is lined up here, and as a display of the best ensemble singing talent Britain can produce (to my certain knowledge there is at least one Welsh voice present), this disc is a great showcase (the group comprises two sopranos, two countertenors, four tenors, two baritones and two basses). It is also very much the crowning glory of The Cardinall’s Musick’s survey of Byrd’s Latin Church Music, a series which began on ASV back in 1997, where it ran for nine discs before, in 2006, heading off to Hyperion for three more. All twelve discs have offered up reference-standard performances of Byrd’s music and here, with the final disc in the series, we have truly exceptional performances of some of his most popular motets.

That said, these performances do not recreate in any way the music of Byrd as the Elizabethans would have heard it. There may be textural authenticity here and the interpretations may have been governed by deep scholarly investigation into the performance practice of Byrd’s time, but what we have is not so much performances which attempt to re-create the sound-world of Byrd’s day as to bring to our ears the same measure of integrity and faithfulness to the original conception as facsimile versions of first editions do to our eyes. This is Byrd uncluttered by the failings and idiosycrasies of musical attitudes in the ensuing four centuries and restored to a kind of glory the composer, in his wildest dreams, could never have imagined. That Byrd’s music not only survives such microscopic attention to detail and nuance but positively flourishes under it speaks volumes not only of its original quality but of the artistic integrity of The Cardinall’s Musick.

Superbly poised entries, fluid textures, immaculately turned phrases and beautifully moulded cadence points all give this a strange combination of delicacy and sturdiness – an old master reprinted on vinyl, if you like – which is ultimately deeply satisfying both to the ear and the intellect. These are thoroughly assured performances which leave no room for technical or musical doubt. The contrasting dynamics at the start of Domine, salve nos dignus are so precisely measured and carefully conveyed in this performance that one suspects hours of painstaking preparation and discussion have gone into this one musical moment. As much care and preparation has also gone into the tiny 45-second Deo gracias as to the weighty Infelix ego, precisely 17 times its length (a work Carwood describes as ‘the crowning glory of Byrd’s achievement’), while Haec dies, possibly Byrd’s most frequently performed piece of sacred music, bounces along as happily as ever, but with glorious crystalline transparency of texture. There is an almost languid quality about this performance of Cunctis diebus, an object-lesson in unaccompanied part-singing, each voice perfectly in its place, the blend delightful to the ear, the lines warmly embracing each other and the overall architecture lovingly moulded by Carwood’s subtle and distinguished direction. These are very much yardstick performances, offering a hitherto unattainable ideal which reveals the true glory of Byrd’s creation.

Coupled with a warm and fulsome recording and the tremendously lucid notes which characterize everything Carwood handles on this disc, this CD in its own right stands as one of the most satisfying recordings of Elizabethan church music to have emerged in recent years.