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Thomas TALLIS (c.1505-1585)
Spem in alium [12:14]
Salve intemerata [23:10]
Missa salve intemerata [28:11]
With all our heart [3:15]
Discomfort them, O Lord [6:38]
I call and cry to thee, O Lord [4:11]
Oxford Camerata/Jeremy Summerly
Recorded at All Hallows, Gospel Oak, London from 21-23 January 2005.
NAXOS 8.557770 [77:19]

From time to time a disc comes across the desk that is so superior that you have to fish for criticisms. As I believe that a healthy balance of praise and constructive critique is a good thing, and lends more to the credibility of the writer, I never hesitate to make suggestions for improvement, even on the finest of recordings. Such is the case with this performance of music by the English master, Thomas Tallis. There is indeed little to call down here, and the negative comments that I do have about it are more the fault of the compositional style and the recording venue’s acoustics than any error on the part of ensemble or conductor.

Tallis served four British monarchs in his remarkable career, remarkable as much for what we do not know about it as for what we do. Actually, quite little is known about his life except that he was quite well known and respected from an early age and that he along with his student William Byrd, held an exclusive right to publish music in England under Elizabeth I and thus became financially as well as artistically secure.

His masterpiece is certainly the forty-voice Spem in alium. Written for eight five-voice choirs it is also a clever puzzle, with the composer’s name embedded in its compositional structure. Summerly’s Oxford Camerata is the perfect ensemble for this piece, singing with unusual clarity and spotless intonation. Often this work becomes a muddled wash of sound, but not so in this case. There are actually moments when one can pick out a phrase or two of text in the massive sound palette.

The motet Salve intemerata although beautifully sung is not as successful as the mass which parodies it later in the disc. In short, it is a bit long! And even the best of note-spinners can get spun out when the length of the text outweighs the cleverness of the ideas. The mass however, is astounding and if you buy this disc for nothing other than that, you will have gotten double your money’s worth. Missing a Kyrie, and a tenor part (skillfully reconstructed here), this is one of the most stunning mass settings ever to fall upon these jaded ears.

And, it is beautifully sung. Crystalline tone, superior enunciation and clarity of line make this one of the most memorable performances of a mass ordinary that I have ever heard.

The program is rounded out by a handful of English motets, hampered slightly by the basic unintelligibility of the texts. These are church anthems, meant to carry a message, and said message is lost when you cannot understand the words. Once in a while a phrase comes through, but more attention to this detail is wanting. With the echoing acoustic much text gets lost, so perhaps different microphone placement would have been a good solution.

This is a complete winner, even with my few little nit-pickings. Buy it soon; it is a spiritual experience.

Kevin Sutton

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