New York Polyphony in Birmingham: A fascinating musical journey to centuries past

New York Polyphony
Birmingham News

By Michael Huebner

New York Polyphony closed out the 2012 Religious Arts Festival at Independent Presbyterian Church on Friday with an impressive display of mostly 15th and 16th century music.

Titled “Secret Love, Private Devotion,” the thought-provoking program presented side-by-side comparisons of settings of sacred and secular Latin verse. Scattered throughout the concert were movements from William Byrd’s Mass for Four Voices, one of the monuments of Anglican church music.

Eventually performed in its entirety, the Mass was presented in the context of the period, as performed in private homes by recusants (mostly Roman Catholics who refused to attend the Church of England), according to the ensemble’s program notes.

It provided a fascinating overview of the era. While making a strong case for Byrd’s music, it gave equal weight to lesser-known British composers. John Sheppard’s 16th century “In manus tuas,” a slow, reverent setting of Christ’s final words on the cross, was performed together with “In pace,” a beautifully harmonious work by contemporary British composer Grayston Ives.

Renaissance motets by Antoine Brumel and Jacob Clemens non Papa, compared French and Flemish approaches. Settings of “Tota pulchra es” by 15th century English composer John Plummer and Francisco Guerrero, from 16th century Spain, contrasted the complex textures of the earlier with the greater transparency of the latter.

Settings of risque texts by John Pyamour and John Dunstable looked back to the fluid counterpoint and sometimes grating dissonances from medieval England. Ives’ highly expressive “Ave Verum Corpus” illustrated the stylistic differences and similarities that had evolved four centuries after Byrd’s setting of the same text.

Byrd’s Mass was sung with meticulous control. Bold swells emerged from individual voices, then subsided to an impeccable blend. Countertenor Geoffrey Williams’ strong, penetrating voice led with authority. Bass-baritone Craig Phillips provided a solid foundation while tenor Steven Caldicott Wilson and baritone Christopher Dylan Herbert completed the crystal clear textures.

Unlike many early music vocal groups, New York Polyphony opted to steer clear of pop diversions. No Beatles, Beach Boys or other articificial concert lighteners, just purity and focus, and that was refreshing. The closest it came was the encore, an exquisitely harmonized rendition of Joseph Barnby’s 19th century lullaby, “Sweet and Low.”