BREMF – Secret Byrd – The Gesualdo Six & Fretwork

A great deal was promised and perhaps even more expected of this immersive staged Mass and theatrical séance by candlelight. Musically it was a triumph. Fretwork played with their masterly precision and style from the sanctuary platform. They also played with patience and determination as the ambulant audience hadn’t settled and some hadn’t even finished chatting throughout the first Fantasia. When the choir came in unexpectedly with the five part ‘Ave Maria’ (it was not in the programme) the noise settled down to a few clumps of stage whispers, mainly from the itinerant ushers who perhaps had already heard all the music earlier during the rehearsal. With most of the audience seated quietly the programme continued with more Fantasias interleaving the movements of Byrd’s Mass for Five Voices.

The Gesualdo Six are the perfect ensemble for this work and the idiosyncratic acoustic of this enormous church. Their individual voices were so well balanced and distinct. The singing was so confident I suspect that they could have sung the whole Mass from memory. The sound was exquisite. So too was ‘Ye Sacred Muses’, Byrd’s elegy on the death of Thomas Tallis, his colleague and mentor, sung by tenor Josh Cooter accompanied most sensitively by Fretwork. The sound just managed to float the vast length of the church to where I was entranced.

In such a large space it was never going to sound as intimate as the domestic setting that Byrd wrote for, but these days Byrd’s Masses are most often sung in college chapels, cathedrals and well appointed churches. Programme notes were displayed on large posters around the nave but only a few people, mainly ushers, wandered around to read them during the performance. The stage setting of costumes, candles and a large dining table added little and the cod acting which brutally interrupted the end of the Five Part ‘Agnus Dei’ was clumsy; the mock communion was irritating.

The Four Part ‘Agnus Dei’, perhaps the most sublime piece Byrd wrote, immediately calmed me. According to the programme the concert should have finished with a Pavan but there were two more elegant pieces from Fretwork and then the choir joined them singing a beautifully plangent motet. I’m disappointed that it was not listed in the programme because I missed the first few words and so couldn’t identify it. Then came an encore, the jolly Easter motet ‘Haec dies’, which dispelled any lingering gloom.

If this production has introduced a handful of the people to the terrors of Elizabethan recusancy then it has done its job. I have a feeling that most of the BREMF audience were already very familiar with William Byrd’s music and the flawless musicality of Fretwork and the Gesualdo Six.

St Bartholomew’s Church
13 October 2023
Rating: ★★★★½
Andrew Connal

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