This recording presents what was probably Byrd’s last mass interspersed with six motets and his Lamentations, with the missing tenor part missing in three places completed by director Owain Park, who explains in his notes that these were chosen to 'complement the thematic, tonal and textual material of the Mass'. Chief among those is Byrd’s most famous motet, Ave verum corpus, with which the recording begins. Various combinations of the six singers are employed and the location of All Hallows is that often used by Hyperion for recordings of liturgical music, its acoustic being ideal for such pure and intimate works.
As I remarked in my review of their Tenebrae Responsories, the scale and sound of recordings by The Gesualdo Six is much more in line with current, modern tastes compared with, for example, that made by The Sixteen in the late 80s. This is instantly apparent in the Kyrie of the mass; The Sixteen are obviously more numerous, employ women’s voices, are grander in impact and positioned in a more distant acoustic; they also sing the Mass pitched a semitone higher, creating a brighter sound. Both ensembles employ vibrato very sparingly and appropriately. I enjoy both but must concede that The Gesualdo Six sounds more apt and atmospheric and their reduced number better suits the simpler, more direct means of communication Byrd favours here as opposed to the more florid, 'continental' mode of his European contemporaries. The general mood of the recital is doleful; the brief Ave Maria is surprisingly devoid of joy and concludes with an almost ironically reserved 'Alleluia'. Tristitia et anxietas is reminiscent of the melancholia evinced in the works of the Prince of Venosa eponymously commemorated by the ensemble recording here and the wording of Circumdederunt me typifies that prevailing cheerlessness:
The sorrows of death have surrounded me, and the dangers of hell have come upon me
and concluding the disc with the Lamentations of Jeremiah offers little consolation. There are, however, also moments of more elaborate and uplifting melismata, neatly and skilfully negotiated.
Regarding the singing itself, Guy James has an especially attractive countertenor, free of edge or hoot, but I would in passing make the same remark as in my previous review, that I could wish for a richer timbre from the two basses of the kind I hear in earlier accounts—there is an element of groan as opposed to a deep resonance. Otherwise, the homogeneity of the group is impeccable and the contrast between those passages in the mass where Byrd reduces or changes the number of voices involved and when the full consort of six sings together in full voice is very apparent.