Wednesday, 20 December, 2023 at 8:00 pm
De Bijloke, Ghent, Belgium
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Ivan Hewitt, The Daily Telegraph (13 January, 2019)
Composing church music can be a dangerous business. In the turbulent years of the mid-16th century, when England’s long-established forms of worship changed not once but twice, being caught on the wrong side could be a capital offence. When the liturgy settled down into the new Protestant forms, many composers chose to fall in with the new demand for a simpler style with English words. But some composers cleaved secretly to their Catholic faith and the old Catholic musical forms, composing long florid melodies woven in intricate polyphonic webs and using Latin texts. Their music is celebrated on this superb CD.
The title, Elizabethan Composers in Exile, is a little misleading. William Byrd never actually left the country, and John Dowland had to get a court post in Denmark because Elizabeth I found him tiresome, as the liner notes admit. But Richard Dering was forced to live mostly in the Low Countries, as was Peter Phillips. The real exile these composers suffered was being unable to practise their faith openly in the country of their birthm and the excellent young choir Stile Antico has focused on sacred pieces which catch that feeling. The words refer to their anguish obliquely, often focusing on the Babylonian exile of the Jews, but the suffering can be keenly felt. The choir express it through a purity of sound with daringly slow tempos, particularly in Byrd’s masterly Tristitia et Anxietas (Sadness and Anxiety). Not all the music is doleful: Philips’s Regina caeli laetare has a lovely rhythmic energy, and the one contemporary piece on the disc, Huw Watkins’s settings of Shakespeare’s “The Phoenix and the Turtle”, has a refreshing urgency.
By focusing on church music, the CD gives a narrow picture of Catholic music in England. The domestic music of the period can strike a more piercingly sad note, as is shown by the wonderful CD The Caged Byrd from the choir I Fagiolini. But as a survey of the beautifully wrought and moving church music of England’s hidden Catholics, this CD could hardly be bettered. ****