This is something of a specialist recording, using musicological writings (including some by the celebrated Joseph Kerman, rounding out his career with Byrd where he began) to flesh out the picture of Byrd's music as a reflection of the sorts of underground Catholic activities that, in the extreme, manifested themselves in the Gunpowder Plot. What such writings reveal is the intricate connection between Byrd's musical choices and the activities of specific groups, such as the Jesuits. The fit between the program and the booklet isn't perfect, and a double disc in this case might have done more to illustrate some of the more complex ideas. The music comes from the Gradualia, a large and comparatively rarely performed set of mass propers that can be traced to specific occasions, and the program offers just a small sample of that cycle. But there's plenty here to interest the general listener who has strained to hear the supposed underground qualities in Byrd's masses and been frustrated. The small mixed-gender group, with one voice per part, is highly effective and easy to imagine in the hidden chapels of Catholic nobles where this music would originally have been sung. And the texts (in Latin and English, except for one originally English piece that has a fascinating performance history of its own) tend toward the themes of Jerusalem and Babylon that, Kerman points out, echoed in the music of African-American slaves centuries later. For the listener wanting to go deeper into Byrd, and perhaps to have an album on hand for an evening's reading about late Elizabethan England, this release makes a fine choice.
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AllMusic Review by James Manheim