High praise for sacred music

Few composers have found themselves writing in such politically inhospitable times as William Byrd did in England during the closing years of the sixteenth century.

I Fagiolini, Byrd Sacred Music, Aldeburgh Festival, Aldeburgh Church, June14

Few composers have found themselves writing in such politically inhospitable times as William Byrd did in England during the closing years of the sixteenth century. Under Elizabeth, the treatment of Catholics became increasingly severe from 1570 onwards and public expression of their faith was outlawed, in particular the celebration of Mass. It was under these oppressive conditions that William Byrd composed the motets and mass performed on Saturday morning in Aldeburgh church by the well established group I Fagiolini. The opening piece Vigilate - urging the faithful to keep watch for the Lord - carries the unwritten warning to beware of the snoopers and eavesdroppers ready to betray the Catholic worshippers to the zealous Protestant enforcers. There was indeed a tension, both in the performance as well as the music, the voices not quite blending and fitting as well they might. Haec dies, its breezy vigorous style well captured, lifted the spirits before a powerful rendition of the fine Deus venerunt gentes completed the first half.

The second half was devoted to a reconstruction of the Mass for the Feast of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul, at the centre of which is the composer's Mass for Four Voices, probably written in the comparative safety of the Essex home of his patron Sir John Petre. Byrd's familiarity with the work of Palestrina and others produced some fine 'note-painting' - the high line of 'Et ascendit' being given a spirited flight by the performers. Yet it was the immensely touching and dignified ending of the Agnus Die which left the deepest impression, not at all cancelled out by the earthy vigour of Tu es Petrus. To sustain both devotional and academic interest as well as musical standards over a substantial time span deserves high praise.

Gareth Jones


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