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Thomas TALLIS (c.1505–1585)
Spem in Alium; Salve intemerata; Missa Salve intemerata; With all our hearts; Discomfort them, O Lord; I call and cry to thee, O Lord
Oxford Camerata/Jeremy Summerly
Recorded All Hallows Church, Gospel Oak, London, 21–23 January 2005
NAXOS 6.110111 [77.19]

 

Considering he was one of the major composers of the Tudor era, we know so little about Tallis. The date of his birth is pure conjecture; he was described as ‘very old’ in 1577 and dying in 1585, but he was already a respected professional musician in 1530. These mysteries are compounded when it comes to his 40 part motet, Spem in Alium.

Our knowledge of the motet comes from a manuscript prepared for the coronation of Prince Harry (Eldest son of James 1st) as Prince of Wales - the motet was repeated at the ceremony for Prince Charles, after Harry had died. This manuscript uses a new English text (‘Sing and Glorify’), probably because the Latin text was considered to be too sombre. So we do not have the original manuscript for the motet and its first performance seems to have left little trace.

Obviously the work’s first performances made sufficient impact on the aristocratic music-lovers of the time for the work to be revived some forty years after its first performance. This revival in 1610 led someone to reminisce about the first performance, describing how Striggio’s visit to London with his forty part motet led a Duke - probably the Duke of Norfolk - to suggest an English composer attempt the feat. Tallis’s motet was then first performed in the Long Gallery of Arundel House in the Strand - owned by Norfolk’s son-in-law, the Earl of Arundel.

We must bear in mind that these are reminiscences some forty years after the date. But the liner notes for the Oxford Camerata’s new disc point out that Arundel also owned Nonesuch Palace, whose octagon banqueting hall would have been ideal for performance of the work.

All this historical background or lack of it is important, as it informs our choices when it comes to the type of performance of Spem in Alium that we desire. Large-scale performances produce something akin to a choral sound. This is well demonstrated by the performance by Winchester Cathedral Choir and Winchester College Quiristers under David Hill (recorded in 1989 on Hyperion). Here, though the choir size might not be huge, they are recorded well back in the generous acoustic of Winchester Cathedral, resulting in a well balanced wall of sound.

But even recording just forty voices, there are still choices to be made, particularly when it comes to acoustic. The Chapelle du Roi under Alistair Dixon on Signum recorded the work in 2002 in the echoing spaces of All Hallows Church, Gospel Oak, with the result that at times they sound as if they are trying to be a bigger choir. You must turn to Peter Philips and the Tallis Scholars on Gimell or to Mark Brown and Pro Cantione Antiqua if you want a performance which tries to bring clarity to the complex textures. Unfortunately on the present disc, the forty singers of the Oxford Camerata are recorded in the same venue as the Chapelle du Roi, with similar acoustic results.

The singers are arranged in a circle and if listened to on SACD, this must sound spectacular as the sound washes round you. But I listened on CD and found the aural image a little confusing, I found Alistair Dixon’s performance, where the opening sounds move from left to right, rather preferable.

The present performance is beautifully shaped and controlled, how could it not be when the choir includes such luminaries as Carolyn Sampson and Robin Blaze. The engineers to quite a good job at picking up the detail of the individual parts, though I would prefer more clarity and less reverberation. Musically, this is an inspiring performance and it would be a joy to hear live, but where I part company with it is in the constant presence of All Hallows in the background, in the form of a steady background hum of reverberation. Next time someone records the piece, can we not attempt to reconstruct the work’s rather intimate first performance and come up with something a little more small scale perhaps, but with more of a feeling for detail.

Spem in Alium cannot be understood without considering the influence of early Tudor polyphony, so it is apposite that the Oxford Camerata have chosen to accompany the work with a pair of Tallis’s early sacred works. The motet Salve Intemerata is present in a manuscript copied in the late 1520s so it must have been written early in Tallis’s career. It is an astonishing work for one so young and is a fluent and accomplished piece of early Tudor polyphony in all its elaborate glory. Tallis mass based on the motet Salve Intemerata was written in the late 1530s when he was working at St. Mary-at-Hill in London. The mass is a significant achievement and is far more mature and concise than the motet on which it is based.

The motet and the mass use radically fewer parts than Spem in Alium and the Oxford Camerata slims down to just 12 or 13 voices. The results are as impressive as the bigger motet, more so in fact as the reduction in parts comes with a significant increase in clarity. The acoustics of All Hallows still have a part to play, but they obscure the textures rather less.

The disc is filled with a trio of Tallis’s English motets. Well performed as they are, they seem a little unnecessary after the elaborate feast of Tallis’s Latin music. It would have been nice, but probably not economic, if they could have finished with a performance of Sing and Glorify.

Naxos will be hoping to sell this disc on the basis of the attraction of Spem in Alium, but I should buy it for the lovely performances of the mass and the motet, Salve intemerata.

Robert Hugill

see CD reviews by Kevin Sutton and John Quinn and DVD audio review by Paul Shoemaker
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