After fifteen years of trying to persuade us that Byrd’s lesser-known works are just as worth listening to as the famous ones, I felt that the Cardinall’s Musick could have come up with a more exciting programme of his celebration of Easter. The timing too might have been better picked: despite it being the season of Passiontide, Oxford’s St Barnabas Church resounded with the word ‘Alleluia’ and the Easter spirit was hard to conjure up surrounded by the veiled statues of an anglo-catholic church in Passiontide, or perhaps this music only has its full power in the liturgical context for which it was written.

The first half was presented in that favourite format of early music CDs, a Tridentine mass: Byrd’s Mass for Four Voices was interspersed with his settings of the propers for the mass of Easter Day: the Introit (Resurrexi), Gradual (Haec dies), Alleluia (Pascha nostrum), Sequence (Victimae paschali), Offertory (Terra tremuit), and Communion (Pascha nostrum). While the performance was accurate and beautiful, at the interval one was left feeling a little underwhelmed: what had happened to the poignant beauty of the Benedictus, and why did they not milk the suspensions in the Agnus Dei a little more? I’m all for gentle singing in polyphony, but even I found myself longing for just a bit more umph. Don’t get me wrong, there were undeniably spectacular moments (mostly in the Credo and the Victimae paschalis), but overall one had the impression that Carwood was taking the intimacy of a recusant mass rather too seriously.

The second half was a further collection of mostly Easter music, beginning with the six-part motet Haec dies. This was performed excellently, although, again, the final alleluias could have had just a bit more volume.

Next, the audience was invited to compare the contributions of three composers—John Sheppard, William Byrd, and William Mundy—to a processional psalm believed to have been written for the Easter Vigil under the reign of Mary I. This was a more successful translation of music from the liturgy to the concert hall, as the daring harmonies of the two young composers contrasted with the more staid efforts of their older contemporary. There followed three short pieces for three voices (Angelus Domini, Mane vobiscum, and Post dies octo), and a partially reconstructed motet (Deus in adjutorium), a non-liturgical setting of Psalm 70. These seemed much more energised than the rest of the evening had been. After the applause we were treated to Tallis’s festal Te lucis ante terminum, whose creative lines and false relations showed off the glories of England’s Renaissance.

The overall sound of the Cardinall’s Musick was very good, although they often came across as underpowered. All the voices had opportunities to sing in smaller groups throughout the night, and the alto, Matthew Venner, stood out as having a truly excellent voice.

The Cardinall’s Musick are an excellent group, and they sang very well, but some of this music’s potential was left untapped. This performance did nothing to persuade me that the long neglect of the more inaccessible portions of Byrd’s œuvre is altogether a bad thing. I’d arrived at the concert expecting to be wowed by this world famous group and have my preconceptions of Byrd as a lesser cousin to Tallis overturned, but this good performance was not the excellence the Cardinall’s Musick is known for.

The Cardinall's Musick © Dmitri Gutjahr
The Cardinall's Musick
© Dmitri Gutjahr
***11