Customer Reviews: Gradualia: Marian Masses
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on January 8, 2006

A Catholic in the Protestant England of Queen Elizabeth had to be careful to keep his head, in every sense of the word. William Byrd, Master of Musicke, succeeded in living to be eighty years old and dying in one piece. By writing for the Protestant Church a Great Service and a Short Service, and for the Papists three masses, besides madrigals, anthems, and hymns,he remained in the good graces of both.

William Byrd's 'Gradualia' is one of the most elaborate musical works of the English Renaissance. This large collection of Liurgical Music (109 pieces in all), was written for clandestine use by English Catholics at a time when they were forbidden to practise their religion in public. When Byrd began to compose the 'Gradualia' , he turned from the penetential and polemical extravagences of the earlier Latin motets to the narrow, carefully ordered world of the Counter-Reformation Liturgy. It was in this new context,cut off from his familiar practise of choosing colorful texts and setting them at length, that he first wrote about the 'hidden and mysterious' power of sacred words and creative response.

Today he is acknowledged as one of the most versitile, original, and creative composers of all time. The Marian Masses that form the contents of this recording include not only the Marian Feasts generally authorised in 1605, but also the Votive Masses associated with the Virgin. A Votive Mass is a Mass offered for a particular intention or purpose, either on behalf of a group of people, or, as in this case, to a saint who was thought to possess special powers of entreaty at the throne of heaven.

This recording contains motets for 3 to 5 voices that comprise the entire material for the Marian Masses. However, it's not necessary to get too involved in the structure of the mass but to simply enjoy William Byrd's polyphonic writing. There isn't a church within miles from where I live that sings any of this music at all including the Catholic churchs. That's why we all seek out recordings to satisfy our musical thirst.

The singing on this CD is exquisite, the balance always correct and the intensity of devotion always right. And no wonder if you look at the 5 voice choir: Deborah Roberts, David Cordier, Michael Chance, John Mark Ainsley and Michael George. This is a cappella singing at its greatest.

BBC MUSIC MAGAZINE TOP 1000 CDS: "...I listened to all nine 'Alleluia' settings one after another and was astonished at the variety and interest of the music....Byrd at his most impressive and sublime here in the glorious 'Nunc Dimmittis' and in the delicate intricacy of 'Optimam partem'. The recording and performance are superb."
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon April 8, 2013
This is a welcome reissue of a very good disc from 1990. It consists of 42 of Byrd's settings of Propers for use in the mass on Marian feast days. These are motets which were interspersed with the usual mass movements. They are often quite short and set texts for the day being celebrated. They are lovely works published at various times in his life by Byrd - a defiantly recusant Catholic in Protestant England. They carry all Byrd's hallmarks of passionate belief set in inventive and deeply expressive music.

Gavin Turner produces a lovely sound from his singers - vibrato-free, distinct of line but well blended and very well balanced. The singers here are all major stars of the repertoire: Deborah Roberts, David Cordier, Michael Chance, John Mark Ainsley, and Michael George and the stellar line-up doesn't disappoint. It's a lovely performance, full of effortless virtuosity and bringing genuine meaning to what they are singing.

This is an excellent recording at a very good price. The recorded sound is very good and the notes are full and interesting (if a little dry in places). I have to say that I marginally prefer the recordings by The Cardinall's Musick in their superb Byrd Edition (many of these motets appear on Volume 12: Byrd: Assumpta es Maria ) but I can recommend this disc very warmly, too.
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on May 7, 2008
William Byrd's polyphonous Masses are marvels of composition and the human voice. Each song is crystalline, like a perfectly cut diamond. In the "Gradualia: Marian Masses",five a cappella voices are woven together. It's exhilarating, sensual music. It brings pleasure to the ear&balm to the soul. Byrd brought the polyphonous arts of Palestrina to the shores of Tudor England. As a Catholic, he faced potential persecution for his faith. Somehow, miraculously, he survived. He could be compared to David playing his harp to soothe King Saul's soul.

The Marian Masses have a universal appeal. A devout Catholic hears orthodoxy translated into musical form; for a Goddess worshipper, it's a celebration of the feminine divine. A Buddhist can visualize Tara, the embodiment of compassion; even an atheist can appreciate the humane skill of Byrd. Music is healing.
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