Secret Byrd review – cloak-and-dagger concert hails a musical genius

When William Byrd and his mentor Thomas Tallis published their Cantiones Sacrae in 1575, it might have suggested a bright future for Anglican music. Yet within a decade Tallis was dead and Byrd had embraced Catholicism. As recusants refusing to attend Protestant services, Byrd and his wife were repeatedly fined, their names placed on a government watchlist. For England’s Catholics, worship was driven underground, the mass conducted by outlawed priests in private houses.

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The spirit of that clandestine celebration of a Catholic mass is at the heart of Bill Barclay’s Secret Byrd, an immersive concert held in the candlelit crypt of London’s St Martin-in-the-Fields. The celebrants are vocal ensemble the Gesualdo Six, nattily done up in doublet and hose, with director Owain Park swapping contemporary civvies for sombre robes as the officiating priest. Clasping hands around a fruit-laden supper table, they sing Byrd’s sublime Mass for Five Voices from authentic single-voice part books while Parks anoints them with holy water. At an ominous pounding on the door, the audience is instructed to huddle on the floor as the candles are extinguished. It’s all chillingly authentic, but while Barclay intends spectators to move around during the performance, he provides little directorial impetus for doing so, making sightlines an issue at times.

Musically it’s glorious. The all-male voices ring out with intonational precision and an almost ecstatic connection to text that would have delighted Byrd, who intended the words to cut through the polyphonic underpinning. The choristers even double as waiters, serving bread and soup to the audience at the moment of communion. Their partners are Fretwork, the masters of viol consorts, who occasionally support the voices but chiefly fill in between the mass movements. Their uplifting contributions, including a buoyant account of Byrd’s folksong-inspired Fantasia upon Browning, leaven a fascinating but otherwise sober-minded affair.

Dubbed the “father of English musick”, Byrd was a great artist, a brave man, and a practising believer in freedom of thought. What better way to open this year’s 400th anniversary celebrations.