The Song Company has its Byrd decidedly in hand for its presentation of Byrd Underground, a collection of motets from late 16th century Elizabethan England. Taken from the five partbooks of Robert Dow, Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford and trained calligraphist, the collection was mostly copied out by him and are an important source of Tudor music, being the sole known source for several pieces.
Artistic Director of The Song Company, Antony Pitts explains in his welcome why these partbooks are so special: these scores contain just one part each, not the full stave (often with piano reduction accompaniment) to which today’s choral singers are accustomed. Each partbooking ensemble singer must rely on their own musical navigational skills. As well, there are no bar lines, so tactus must be communicated; the scansion, where the text is written to match the notes has yet to come into use; accidentals are not always written. More than a salon concert, this is a sophisticated learning exercise for the performers, who have the opportunity to hone their already considerable skills in musicianship and to study from the original sources to deliver the ‘most authentic possible’ interpretation of this repertoire in an expert and enlightening performance of Tudor polyphony.
The program contains motets by the greats of Tudor England – Robert Parsons, William Byrd, William Mundy, Thomas Tallis, one “Mr Tayler”, Robert White and the ubiquitous Anonymous. Mostly sacred in content, there is a lullaby and a ‘round’ for variety. Most of the program is sung by The Song Company’s superb ensemble artists mezzo-soprano Janine Harris, tenor Ethan Taylor, bass Hayden Barrington and Pitts directing and singing, with Elias Wilson, vocalisation scholar. Principal artists Roberta Diamond, Amy Moore and associate artist Edward Elias swell the ensemble to eight for the jolly round Hey down, sing ye now after me (Anonymous) and stay for White’s Exaudiat te. Diamond and Moore take the lower female parts as Harris sings soprano, demonstrating her exceptional range, precision, clarity and even tone. Barrington achieves a rich and grounded bass; Taylor is a promising tenor. However, it is hard not to be especially impressed by Wilson whose musicality and glowing voice are a very welcome addition to the ensemble. These are voices to watch. The interplay between Harris and Wilson in Parsons’ O Bone Jesu is exquisitely light and agile.
The quintet of singers is positioned at the heart of the crypt, facing each other across the centre to heighten the antiphonal effect. The ensemble of eight completes the circle, surrounded by a spellbound audience. The crypt of St Mary’s Cathedral is an apt setting for its acoustic and narrative setting, harking back to when these composers, thought to have been Catholic sympathisers, had to take their worship underground.
This circle of singers has added significance in the absence of dynamic markings, phrasing and rehearsal notes in the scores, as they rely on gestures, eye contact and empathy to achieve a seamless blend and congruity in phrasing, articulation and dynamics. Endings are in perfect agreement and diction is clear.
In a novel move, the ensemble invites the audience to experience firsthand what it is like to sing from a partbook, leading the gathering in a reprise of the familiar Parsons Ave Maria.
The circle formation also looks back to Dow’s purpose in writing these books, which were to be enjoyed by good company, over food and wine at a 16th century dining table. Although sacred in content, their purpose is secular though reverential. The concert program interpolates quotations from the Dow partbook amidst the words of the text. The reference to “…the melody of music-making with pleasant and moderate wine” captures the essence of Dow’s intentions.
Robert White’s Exaudiat Te has the ensemble of eight dividing into two quartets, creating a different mix of voices; the final item, Byrd’s Christe qui lux es opens with the octet in unison. They walk around in a circle and we hear each voice in turn before they recess down the aisle, closing in appealingly dissonant open fifths.
Credit is due to the very sensitive audience. Too transfixed to applause between items, the sound is allowed to distil through the silence and reverberate through the chambers of the crypt, maintaining the serenity of the mood amongst both audience and singers. Celestial sounds from underground.