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New York Polyphony continues to claim a spot as one of the finest small vocal groups performing today.

09.16.13
New York Polyphony
Audiophile Audition

By Steve Ritter

New York Polyphony sounds larger than they are. These four guys know how to project their sound, and it’s not just the way they are recorded. Though I have no doubt that the Länna Church in Sweden has marvelous acoustics, the fullness of this ensemble’s projection goes way beyond mere control board techniques. The music helps as well; the three mass settings by Roman Catholic composers caught in the midst of personal recusancy had to dance on a fine line between imperial favor—and indeed, life itself—and their own loyalties to the church. Each of these works, performed in what could only be called inadequate settings at best, might have been done by a quartet of people. Elizabeth’s reign tolerated, barely, the recusants, but they could not make a big splash about it, and the last thing she would have wanted was to see or hear was large, elaborate mass settings proclaiming the very doctrines she swore to suppress.

So the works by Plummer, Byrd, and Tallis, are scaled-down in context but hardly in quality. John Plummer actually had it the easiest—he flourished during the reign of Henry VI, and was known throughout the continent. The winds of change were only beginning to blow through his life in his last years when the House of Tudor began its accession, but the Reformation destroyed virtually all of his admittedly vigorous and eccentric music. If not for his popularity outside of England we may not have any of his extant works. His three-part Mass is an exploration of challenging harmonies and almost jarring rhythms.

William Byrd was caught in the fire a number of times, and this Mass displays his unique and unflagging ability to put heart and soul into every line of notes he writes. Byrd was fined a number of times during his life but always evaded ultimate persecution, though he was friends with many who were not so lucky. He was placed on the “search” list of recusant active Catholics several times, was accused of involvement in what could have been treasonable activities, but escaped this possibly because of the Queen’s own respect for his music. In fact, she granted him lands toward the end of his life after he petitioned the court because of the failure of a noted music publication series.

Tallis is of course the high priest of the English Renaissance. He served four different monarchs and skillfully trod the way of languages, liturgy, and style. But his commitment to the recusant cause was never in doubt. This Mass is nearly syllabic, saving counterpoint for special moments and used only sparingly, making it, as the notes call it, “Catholic in intent and Anglican in execution.” This beautiful work is a good introduction to the composer for those who don’t know him.

The main pieces are interspersed among three shorter modern works of varying interest. Perhaps the best is the Bennett A Colloquy with God, a piece the composer gifted to New York Polyphony after hearing them perform in 2012, to a setting by Sir. Thomas Brown. It’s a lovely, lyrical piece that works well coming after the Byrd. Andrew Smith wrote his Kyrie: Cunctipotens Genitor Deus specifically for this recording and it sounds more like the Renaissance pieces than anything modern. The same can’t be said for Gabriel Jackson’s Ite missa est, with his always distinctive yet highly-evocative and colorful religious music. This particular piece is fine, but rather inconsequential in the vast universe of the rest of his catalog.

Another fine album from New York Polyphony, cradled in Bis’s marvelous surround acoustics.