Odyssean Ensemble debuts with Byrd (CD Review)

William Byrd – The Great Service and Anthems

Odyssean Ensemble, Colm Carey, director; Christian Wilson, organ

Linn Records

William Byrd is often associated with Catholic church music, contributing three masses and collections of propers. He also composed one of the finest collections of Anglican music, a “full” or “long” service of the music for the daily offices. After his death, it was dubbed “The Great Service.” One can readily hear why in this superlative debut recording by Odyssean Ensemble, directed by Colm Carey. Written for two vocal quintets – placed on either side of the chancel – the piece is a feast of antiphonal effects with many vocal combinations and a plethora of contrapuntal techniques. Byrd was mindful of reformers’ insistence on textual clarity and primarily syllabic declamation; all of these peregrinations are accomplished while incisive text-setting is maintained.  

Singing from a new edition of the piece prepared by Andrew Johnstone (who also contributes informative liner notes), recorded in a sumptuous space, Odyssean Ensemble deploys a warm sound with impressive diction. Carey’s shaping of the piece yields spry rhythms and elegant phrasing. A selection of English anthems appealingly augment the program. In addition to accompanying the singers on the lovingly reconstructed St. Tello instrument, organist Christian Wilson contributes a nimble reading of a Fantasy by Byrd. Devotional texts, read by the actor David Suchet, are a welcome inclusion. The recording is an example of fastidious detail to history breathing new life into an underserved work. One hopes that a recording of Byrd’s masses will be soon to follow.