Magnificat - Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang - International Record Review
The title, taken from one of Shakespeare's sonnets, might give the impression that this is a collection of musical settings of Shakespeare or, at least, some English writers of the Elizabethan age. Not so. In fact, once past the disc's title, not only is there no Shakespeare nor a single word sung in English, but neither are there any texts by a noted poet or scribe of the period. Instead, we have an intriguing programme of sacred Latin texts dating from an era when English, rather than Latin, was the language of the church, and the words set by these three sixteenth-century English composers are all taken from sources long since obscured by antiquity. What the Shakespeare quotation does reflect is the sublime beauty of the music, the singing, the recording and the entire packaging. In a word, this is exquisite.
We begin with a matchlessly calm performance of Byrd's setting of the eighth-century Compline hymn Christe, qui lux es et dies (‘O Christ who are the light and day'). Full of delicious false relations and tantalizing harmonic digressions, the singers exude immense breadth and spaciousness, with gloriously transparent textures and beautifully moulded phrases.
The programme is as comforting and pleasing to the intellect as the music is the soul, forming something of a palindrome as it builds on through Robert White's extended Lamentations and Robert Parsons's famous Ave Maria to two settings of Domine, quis habitabit, the first, by Byrd, possibly one of the most extraordinary pieces of choral writing he ever produced. Shocking, to our ears, in its modernity, and perplexing with its underlying sense of disquiet and chaos derived from the dense nine-part texture (which displays some magnificently resonant bass voices among the singers which comprise Magnificat). This marks the central point in the programme, which then moves back through similar texts in reverse order to end with Byrd's own Lamentations and White's setting of Christe, qui lux es et dies. All are marked by sumptuous singing by Magnificat.
One of these singers, Sally Dunkley, has also written the splendidly researched and greatly illuminating booklet notes. While the details of the performance practices employed and the sources used are a very valuable inclusion for anyone interested in this strange and obscure area of Elizabethan music (‘For whom was this Latin Music written?, asks Dunkley, ‘given that one of the first pieces of legislation in the new Queen's reign was the Act of Uniformity, which specified that church services should be held in English rather than in Latin'), the magnificent sound Philip Cave draws from these 18 singers and the ravishing recording the Linn engineers have made in St George's Church, Chesterton, Cambridge is justification enough for releasing this largely unheard music on disc.