REVIEW: Secret Byrd @ BREMF

October 14, 2023

Secret Byrd

Friday 13 October

St Bartholomew’s Church


Brighton Early Music Festival


Review by Lisa Newnham

Director, writer, and composer Bill Barclay – Artistic Director of Concert Theatre Works brings a mediation into belief and the sacred via an immersive staged Mass celebrating the 400-year legacy of William Byrd in the vast vaulted spaces of St Bartholomew’s Church.

England’s finest composer was a covert Catholic facing brutal prosecution, this performance offers us Byrd’s Mass for Five Voices as he intended: sung for private worship in strictest secrecy. The Gesualdo Six and Fretwork collaborate for the first time in a theatrical seance by candlelight.  This new work invites secular and religious audiences alike to commune with some of the most ravishing music ever written, recreating the music (and the spiritual intensity) of forbidden Catholic worship at the height of England’s golden age.

Lit by real candles, not electric candles, offering up an immediate authentic ambience. You cannot replace the smell, warmth and authenticity of candle lit space with a battery flickering. The purpose of this event to catapult you back into the 16th century.

Singers dressed in period costumes move about the space, with one greeting us to explain and welcome us into this experience to be shared. There are olde text panels from the director exploring the narratives arranged around the church space allowing people to wander and learn at their own pace.

In the middle of the space a dais with a round table is set up like a dining table, this is where most of the ‘action’ takes place. The music is from viol consort Fretwork who are arranged in front of the huge marble alter in St Barts with the singers slowly moving around the space, holding candles, with their voices coming from different directions.  We are thus very close to the singers, an utterly magical feeling, right in the middle of these supreme refined polyphonic harmonies, and can clearly hear them all flowing, folding and coming together.

We sat, silently in awe of the candlelit thrill unfolding around us.

It’s clear that the secret mass would have happened somewhere perhaps more intimate than the echoing halls of St Barts, but the singers produced a sense of intimacy by being so close together that we are drawn in and feel private and collaborating. What we may have lost in intimacy we gained with the whole of the huge acoustic space of St Bartholomew’s ringing with their pure harmonic tones and end notes just hanging in the air, as if the whole immense space was vibrating with their sounds. Divine.

The mass is reenacted with Owain Park director & leader of the The Gesualdo Six singers dressed as the priest, and although there were moments where the acting may falter, it’s carried totally by the shimmering brilliance of the music and singers. They are captivating, assured and project heavenly voices into the space.

Photo by Mark Allan

While they sit and sing around the central table, members of the audience, women and men, are invited up to the table, this extends the feeling of an intimate mass. At one point everyone up at table hold hands whilst the ensemble sing.

I felt that this invoked the quiet mystical oneness of a mass, the sacred mixed carefully with the performance and allowing the dignity of the mass to lay alongside the beauty of the entertainment.

The profound foundational bass and shimmering stratospheric counter tenors made me catch my breath, but here all the singers and musicians are on point, pulling this music out of history and breathing into it a deep sense of life.

Suddenly there was loud banging on the doors, loud, intimidating, all the candles are blown out. We are discovered, we are exposed, and we understand how forbidden and dangerous this perfect musical observation would have been to those attending it.  It’s a defining moment. Silence falls, the audience whispering, director Barclay cunningly evokes the perilous reality of the times.

Sacred things are cleared away quickly, but the singing gradually continues with the candles  flicking to life around us.

This delightful dramatic and semi-promenade performance is a superb way of introducing the history and beauty of early music in its historical context. If you were new to BREMF (or early music) last night was a fantastic introduction to the quality of the music, where you get to experience not only how ethereal this polyphonic singing is, but where and how it developed its sense of tranquillity.

Some of the audience, who had pre booked, received steaming bowls of soup and bread on trays brought out by the singers, all adding to the sense of intimacy sharing.

The Secret Mass is an example not just of music historically underlying spiritual belief but of  performance supporting the ability to suspend belief and feeling an understanding – from a secular perspective – of the tremulous insubstantial elements of faith, just as the notes lay shimmering in the high ethereal vaults of St Barts.

The Secret Mass was a  beautiful opening gig to BREMF presented in an accessible and interesting setting, with this sacred music made tangible, illustrating the historical context of this music.

We left rearranged inside, grounded but also up in the air and floated out into the autumnal air full of hope. BREMF have really brought a very familiar piece of music out into an audience made up of purists, and first timers, giving everyone something to sigh over.

Full programme, cast and creative list for Secret Byrd here

BREMF runs until Sat 28th October  see the full programme of exciting events on their website here.

There are almost always prom tickets held back for performance’s so check directly with them if you’re interested in going along.