Byrd’s Great, Ex Cathedra, Birmingham Town Hall, Sunday 5 February 4pm 5***** David Gray

William Byrd – Various works including The Great Service

Works by Thomas Tomkins and Edmund Hooper

Thomas Tallis – Spem in Alium

In this celebration of the 400th anniversary of seminal English composer, William Byrd, Ex Cathedra continue their tradition of presenting the familiar from a fresh and imaginative new perspective, but always with a strong academic justification for any unexpected choices.

In a concert dominated by four major works by Byrd – the three Masses and The Great Service – many choirs might have just sung each of them through.  Here, movements from the four pieces were mixed and matched, along with anthems and consort songs to give, in the first half, an approximation of how a Catholic Mass at the time might have been structured and, in the second, a representation of the form of an Anglican Evensong.

This organisation of the music resulted in a programme delightfully full of contrast and variety in terms of musical forms and the vocal and instrumental forces at play. It set delicate readings of movements from the intimate, contrapuntal mass settings side by side with more monolithic multipart anthems to create a sense of relief and structure.

Another unexpected innovation was the use of instruments in choral music that we tend to think of as a cappella.  Programme notes pointed to overwhelming evidence that this was the sound world of the time.  Nevertheless, there were occasuions when the inclusion of instruments felt a little unusual.

In the opening anthem O, Lord make they servant Elizabeth, the doubling of voices and instruments throughout resulted in a dense and slightly muddy texture where sometimes the music seems to call just voices. However, it is good to experience things with different ears. 

In contrast, an atmospheric, purely vocal performance of Ave Verum delivered breathless lyricism, and one of those rare “time-stood-still” moments.

Instruments were used more judiciously and sparingly, and to dramatic effect, in movements from The Great Service.  This is a work where Byrd makes use of contrasting vocal textures: solo quartets, semi-chorus, and full chorus, within the framework of an antiphonal conversation.  Here instrumental doubling added to the range of contrasts and the power of the performance.

The extracts from The Great Service also benefited from the size of the vocal forces employed.  Small-scale readings of this monumental piece simply do not work; one needs the effects created by the interplay between smaller and larger forces to capture the full impact of this composition.

The use of instruments in Tallis’ Sing and Glorify, the 40-part English anthem better known in its Latin setting as Spem in Alium, delivered pros and cons.  On the plus side, the decision to replace one of the eight choirs with sackbuts and cornets, and another with the consort of viols, helped to highlight the interplay between blocks of musicians.  The sackbuts and cornets in particular added pleasing weight and presence to the big structural downbeats.  On the minus side, during some of the less densely scored moments, the vocal texture seemed a bit thin, perhaps leaving some of the higher voices uncomfortably exposed. 

The above notwithstanding, this was a thrilling and majestic reading of a work that we just don’t get to experience often enough.

The concert was peppered with some gorgeous consort songs which gave Linarol Consort of Renaissance Viols a chance to shine.  In these, they provided exquisitely delicate support over which the young solo voices from Ex Cathedra floated like angels.

Dedicated and interested audience members had the chance to get up close and personal with some of the repertoire – and had a rare chance to actually sing the 40-part motet – in a choral workshop the previous day.  A surprisingly relaxed experience considering the musical challenges involved, this provided a unique insight into the workings of this amazing music.

Ex Cathedra

His Majestys Sagbutts & Cornetts

Linarol Consort of Renaissance Viols

Conductors – Jeffrey Skidmore & Sarah Latto

ReviewsGate Copyright Protection