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CD Review

William Byrd

The Great Service

Robert Quinney, organ
The Choir of Westminster Abbey/James O'Donnell
Hyperion CDA67533 76m DDD
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During the second half of the 16th century a new found musical fervour swept through the liturgical corridors of the Post-Reformation Church of England. With this wild enthusiasm, which obviously had its roots in the Catholic tradition, there arose three distinct styles for settings of the Canticles, so central to the vision of Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1533 to 1556; 'short services with efficient and simple texts'; 'verse services with more elaborate and intricate textures performed by soloists as well' and finally the 'great' or 'full' services which were an extension and development of the latter to create musical structures of amazing diversity.

At the very zenith of this genre comes this towering Byrd masterpiece, widely regarded as the greatest unaccompanied setting of the service ever composed. This huge work was virtually unkown until its rediscovery by Edmund Fellowes in the manuscripts of Durham cathedral in 1922, and although its date of composition cannot be ascertained, the style of Byrd's writing seems to suggest it belongs to the 1580's.

This CD presents the 'Great Service' in its correct liturgical order, with the frequently omitted 'Kyrie' included for good measure. The piece is complimented by six of Byrd's most moving anthems and two organ voluntaries from 'My Lady Nevell's Booke', a collection of keyboard music put together in 1591.

This second volume from Westminster Abbey forces is not only a unique opportunity to assess afresh the historic importance of Byrd's legacy, but also a chance to treat yourself to some immaculate singing performed in the magical acoustic of the Abbey itself.

Copyright © 2006, Gerald Fenech