Odyssean Ensemble - Byrd: The Great Service & Anthems - Gramophone
Given the renown that The Great Service has enjoyed more or less from the off, introductions are superfluous. There’s nothing churchy about the Byrd offered here by the Odyssean Ensemble; their gutsy approach reminds me of Ensemble Plus Ultra’s selection from the Gradualia, the Propers for Saints Peter and Paul in particular. The acoustic (relatively dry but sumptuous) and performing forces (10 singers and a chamber organ) encourage comparison. Yet the diminuendo at the end of O God, the proud are risen against me reveals a core of tranquillity, incidentally confirming the quality of the sound recording. A bonus is the extended Fantasia, BK62, which matches The Great Service for ambition and invention (the organ, a modern copy made to Tudor specifications, is well worth hearing).
The question of the organ brings me to the decision (reported on in Andrew Johnson’s excellent notes) to follow literally the prescription of contemporary manuscripts, which notate only the outer voices. While performers often treat this as a form of shorthand (think of Lully’s reported habit of composing only the outer parts, leaving the others to be filled in by assistants), Christian Wilson does just what the scores indicate, albeit doubling the bass at the octave. The result, Johnson suggests, speaks for itself, and I must say I agree: it imparts richness but without heaviness and allows those inner voices to be heard perfectly clearly. Last, the cover illustration, showing members of the Chapel Royal at Elizabeth’s funeral in 1603, is beautifully reproduced. Everything here is stylish and very rewarding.