Odyssean Ensemble

William Byrd: The Great Service & Anthems

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This is the debut ensemble of the Odyssean Ensemble, directed by the Master of Music at the Tower of London, Colm Carey. It's not clear whether that's where the album was recorded, but wherever it may have been, it's gorgeous, with brilliant individual voices keeping their integrity in a complex texture. The album, in fact, offers an ideal combination of performance forces and work performed. The Great Service of William Byrd, paired with some anthems (as likely would have been done in Byrd's time), is not often performed. After you hear this performance, you'll feel there is no good reason for its neglect, but it may be that it doesn't fit into any of the conventional boxes of late Renaissance English sacred polyphony. It was written for the Protestant royal chapel (exactly when, and whether for Elizabeth I or James I is not clear), and is in English, but it does not have the usual limpid quality of Protestant service music. Instead, it is a big work, constantly polyphonic, but it does not have the monumental intricacy of Byrd's three great Catholic masses of about the same time. Byrd devises a unique structure of constantly shifting polyphonic combinations from among the ten total parts, and he keeps the text clear as Protestant requirements dictated. Carey and his Odyssean Ensemble respond to this ideally, with crisp, sparkling vocal lines, and the ensemble members, all experienced singers from various London choirs, have the chops to realize Carey's reading. Sample one of the anthems, perhaps O God, the proud are risen against me (elegantly placed in context by annotator Andrew Johnstone, who prepared new editions of all the works here), for an idea. An unusually strong recording of English Renaissance sacred music.

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