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William Byrd

Byrd praised by NYT

David Weininger, New York Times (26 January, 2023)

Sometime in the 1590s, the Tudor composer William Byrd moved to a farm in a village in Essex, living there in semiretirement for the rest of his life. A steadfast Catholic, Byrd, who had been spared the most violent consequences of the Reformation, could now practice his faith in relative privacy among a like-minded community. Much of the liturgical music he wrote during this period — including three Mass settings — was intended for clandestine worship.

The outstanding early music vocal ensemble Stile Antico marks the year’s 400th anniversary of Byrd’s death with this release, which focuses on that late music of one of England’s greatest composers. At its center is the Mass for Four Voices, emblematic of his late liturgical works: spare and compact in expression yet with an unmistakable inner glow. The ending of the Agnus Dei unfurls a chain of lush harmonic suspensions, underlining the fervency of the plea for peace by one who had seen his share of ecumenical conflict.

Also included are a collection of other liturgical works and what Byrd called sacred songs, all sung with Stile Antico’s familiar blend of warmth, clarity and responsiveness to text. The autumnal opening piece, “Retire, my soul, consider thine estate,” seems like an epigraph for the composer’s circumstance, and the group sings its final phrase with transporting quiet: “Thy days will seem but dreams, thy hopes but fables.”