CD review: New York Polyphony, 'Times go by Turns'

New York Polyphony
San Francisco Chronicle

By Joshua Kosman

For a demonstration of how sumptuously beautiful the music of the English Renaissance can sound, you could scarcely do better than this superb new release by the vocal quartet New York Polyphony. The main offerings are the four-voice mass settings of William Byrd and Thomas Tallis, along with a quite different three-voice setting by their little-known predecessor John Plummer, and all three are executed with a powerful combination of fluency and rhythmic solidity. For Byrd and Tallis, writing in the 16th century, setting the Catholic liturgy was a political as well as an artistic undertaking, either in support of the reigning monarchy or dangerously in opposition; yet the music itself is almost heedlessly lavish in its expansiveness and serenity. Plummer's music, earlier by nearly a century, has a lean and hungry edge in contrast. But the ensemble delivers all three works with urgency and rhetorical flair. Interspersed among the mass settings are short tidbits by contemporary composers Andrew Smith and Gabriel Jackson, as well as a gorgeous burst of chordal writing by the late Richard Rodney Bennett.