This second album in the Naked Byrd series by Britain's a cappella Armonico Consort is, like its predecessor, devoted only slightly to the music of William Byrd. Instead, in the words of annotator Adam Binks, it is "a second compilation of music stimulated by overpowering feelings and potent sentiments that have the power to move and inspire the listener." It's not really clear what this means; the Latin and English texts of these pieces of sacred music are generally conventional and include several settings of the most conventional text of all, the Catholic mass. Take it as a marketing blurb. What's on offer here is not intense expression but the representation of intense expression through sensuous vocal textures. The Armonico Consort, with between 10 and 14 members depending on the work involved, cultivates a sort of shimmering sound in which the vibrato of individual voices bleeds through but does not muddy the clear choral sound. It's quite something to hear, and, when applied at a consistent mezzo-piano dynamic level, it has a remarkable power to make music from Hildegard of Bingen to composers of the 21st century all sound similar. The chief contrast factor is not texture, for counterpoint is subsumed in sheer vocal beauty, but dissonance; the modern works by Tavener and his contemporaries are quite clear harmonically, but the pungent dissonances in Purcell's Hear my Prayer, O Lord (track 5), are deployed with marvelous effect. Listeners' reactions to performances like this are likely to be highly individual. To those interested in beautiful choral singing, it doesn't get much more beautiful than this. To those interested in Byrd or Victoria as composers, it may well seem an odd distortion of the classic a cappella style in the service of modern crossover popularity. Sample anywhere and choose, but note that Signum's engineers, working at, of all places, the Moreton Morrell Real Tennis Court, have done a superb job of realizing the performers' aims with a spacious yet clear acoustic.
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AllMusic Review by James Manheim
|Mass for 4 parts|