CD review: Byrd/Britten choral music

First published in the Guardian on 16 February, 2017

Byrd/Britten: Choral music
Choir of Jesus College Cambridge/Williams (Signum)

William Byrd was a Catholic in the service of an Anglican monarch; Benjamin Britten was a gay pacifist in wartime England. It never hurts to remember how many of the artists we end up deifying faced some sort of bigotry in their day. This album presents Byrd and Britten as a pair of outsiders, alternating works by both in a programme that illuminates but doesn’t force the parallels. Conductor Mark Williams opens with a Byrd anthem (O Lord, make they servant, Elizabeth our Queen) and closes with Britten’s youthful Te Deum. In between we get a considered performance of Britten’s Missa Brevis and Byrd’s sublimely introspective Quomodo cantibimus. 350 years separate their careers but Byrd’s scraping harmonies often sound no older than Britten’s. The singing of Jesus College isn’t always sharply defined but it is warm and breathy, topped by excellent boy choristers and best in stately slow pieces like Byrd’s Ave Verum Corpus.