For their contribution to Miller Theatre’s Early Music Series Saturday night, male vocal quartet New York Polyphony delivered an exceptionally curated program that encompassed both Elizabethan masses and 21st-century reflections on religious subjects. To a packed crowd at Times Square’s Church of St. Mary the Virgin, the ensemble presented works of Byrd and Tallis, as well as their little-known pre-Reformation predecessor, John Plummer. Although the three works provided a comprehensive view to the Tudor-era religious landscape, each composer imbued their mass with a distinctive color that was effortlessly amplified by New York Polyphony’s exceptional sense of style.
Byrd’s Mass for Four Voices progressed from elegant, academic choral writing to lavish and highly ornamented melisma. The ensemble was in control throughout the work, releasing each phrase in perfect unison, and amplifying percussive consonants that resonated throughout the enormous Gothic church. Craig Phillips’ gravely bass provided a rich foundation; a organ-like pedal that supported Steven Caldicott’s rich tenor and Geoffrey Williams’ crystalline countertenor timbres. Caldicott alternated between trumpeting solo material and a variety of warm ensemble colors that interchanged based on the other voices at hand.
Contrasting Byrd’s private utterings was Plummer’s intricate writing in his Missa sine nomine. Although penned for three voices (and the addition of the solo countertenor during two brief plainsong movements), Plummer hardly incorporates all three voices at once—devilishly alternating between vocal pairs in a seamless fashion. Here, Christopher Dylan Herbert was the true standout, with a textured baritone voice that easily projected when paired with the tenor, while pulling back in order to blend peacefully with the bass. Especially when compared to Tallis’ reserved and demure mass writing, Plummer’s work pealed with jubilant fanfares and a brisk sense of pacing.
Rounding out the program were three newer works from Andrew Smith, Gabriel Jackson, as well as the recently deceased Richard Rodney Bennett, whose A Colloquy with God was written for New York Polyphony mere weeks before his death. Using a text of Sir Thomas Browne, Bennett utilized a series of alternating suspensions and vibrant text painting to express the poetry’s robust fight against impending death. Smith and Jackson’s works followed in the same vein, serving as brief utterances that provided momentary respite between each of the English masters’ major works.