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Early Music

Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger



Thomas TALLIS (c.1505-1585)
Spem in alium (40-part Motet) [12:14]
Salve intermerata (Motet) [23:10]
Missa Salve intermerata [27:51]
With all our heart [3:15]
Discomfort them, O Lord [6:38]
I call and cry to thee, O Lord [4:12]
Oxford Camerata/Jeremy Summerly
Recorded at All Hallows, Gospel Oak, London 21-23 January 2005 DDD
NAXOS 8.557770 [77:19]

 


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This CD happily celebrates no less than three anniversaries. It is one of a series with which the Naxos label is marking its own eighteenth birthday. It's fitting that Jeremy Summerly and his Oxford Camerata should play a prominent role in those celebrations since they have been an artist mainstay of the Naxos catalogue almost since its inception. Secondly, the disc marks the twenty-first anniversary of Oxford Camerata's foundation, in 1984. Last, but by no means least, with this recital the Camerata celebrate the five hundredth anniversary of the assumed birth of Thomas Tallis, for 1505 is as close as we are likely to get to the exact birthday of this composer whose origins are shrouded in obscurity despite his great eminence as an English composer.

Tallis was not just a very fine composer; he was also a Great Survivor. His life spanned the reign of no less than four English Kings and Queens. When he was born England, ruled by Henry VIII (1509-1547) was still a Roman Catholic country. Henry's breach with Rome was intensified during the brief reign of his son, Edward VII (1547-1553). Then the religious pendulum swung back towards Rome with the accession of Edward's Catholic sister, Mary (1553-1558) before Protestantism was finally confirmed in the ascendancy under Mary's younger sister, Elizabeth I (1558-1603). With such changes in the religious climate we can scarcely imagine how difficult life must have been in Tudor England, especially since the profession of faith became inseparably linked with loyalty to the Crown.

This volatile climate impacted upon Tallis, who was a prominent composer and who at various times in his career wrote music suitable for both the Roman Catholic and reformed rites. The three short works in English that conclude this programme are interesting in this respect for, as Jeremy Summerly points out in his scholarly but very readable note, both With all our heart and Discomfort them, O Lord were originally conceived to Latin texts. On the other hand I call and cry to thee, O Lord moved, as it were, in the opposite direction, beginning as an instrumental work to which Tallis later set the present English text, later still re-casting the music as a Latin motet.

The substantial motet Salve intermerata ("Hail, pure Virgin Mary") is a fairly early work, dating probably from the 1520s. It is a setting of a lengthy prose prayer to the Virgin, laid out at luxuriant length by Tallis for five voices. Arguably it is too long and Jeremy Summerly hints at that in his note when he says of the subsequent Mass setting inspired by the motet that the later music is “more concise, direct and vocally pragmatic than the lengthy motet.” I think it's a tribute to the fine performance heard here that one isn't conscious of the motet lasting for twenty three minutes.  It falls into four sections and Summerly builds and controls each one splendidly, using dynamics imaginatively and sensitively in accordance with the words so as to hold the listener's attention at all times. Furthermore the performance is distinguished by an admirable clarity. Not only are the lines of polyphony clear but so are the words and this, I think, is terribly important when the text, unlike, say, that of the ordinary of the Mass is unlikely to be familiar to many people. The sheer length of the piece must mean that it is vocally and mentally taxing for the singers but one is not conscious of this. Rather, the performance is spirited and committed. This motet may display some signs of immaturity, at least in terms of its length, but it comes across here as an extraordinary piece, full of interest.

The Mass Salve intermerata dates from the following decade, possibly from 1537. Tallis drew on the earlier motet quite significantly, especially in the first two movements, the Gloria and Credo - there is no Kyrie and the Sanctus and Benedictus are combined.  I imagine the Mass is in five parts (the notes are silent on this point) and the tenor part has been lost, though it has been reconstructed for this recording, I think. The lack of that part probably explains why it has been relatively neglected, Summerly suggests. I think that's a pity for it contains some fine music. The Gloria includes some splendidly festive music – or at least Oxford Camerata make it sound so! - and there are some passages of ringing affirmation in the Credo, such as the music at "Et Resurrexit". The entire performance seems to me to be full of life and I enjoyed it very much.

Given that this is an anniversary CD it would have been all too easy for Jeremy Summerly to choose a programme of well-known music from Tallis:s output. He is to be congratulated on avoiding this easy option for all the Salve intermerata music, both motet and Mass, are fairly infrequently heard and their inclusion here is greatly to be welcomed. However, Summerly has allowed one “party piece”, namely the vast Spem in alium. But even here there's an individual touch, and a nice one too. Obviously it was necessary to augment the twelve voices of Oxford Camerata and so no less than twenty-eight former members of the ensemble have been invited back to swell the ranks.

Any performance of this huge work should be a celebration. I well recall my own first "live" encounter with the piece over twenty years ago when Sir David Willcocks brought the Bach Choir to sing in Beverley Minster. This Tallis masterpiece came at the end of a fine and varied concert. The choir arranged themselves into eight distinct groups, two at the front of the church and the remaining six down the side aisles, three to each side. As the performance unfolded we in the audience had the sensation that the whole of that beautiful church, one of the most splendid in all England, was ablaze with sound, the music coming at us from all sides. The performance (and surroundings) were unforgettable but, just to make sure we didn't forget Willcocks and his singers performed it all over again as an encore!

But enough of memories! This present reading is a memorable one too. It's very difficult to convey the sweep and majesty of Tallis's extraordinary conception through a pair of loudspeakers but Summerly and his expanded forces make a pretty good job of doing so. For the recording the choirs were laid out in a cruciform arrangement and one can get some sense of the spatial separation from the conventional stereo format in which I listened. I should imagine, however, that the SACD version is much more impressive. Again, as elsewhere in the programme, I admire the clarity that Summerly brings to the proceedings. It's a challenge to avoid making a performance of Spem in alium no more than a wash of sound. Despite the inherent difficulties this is very much better than that and a satisfying amount of detail emerges. As elsewhere on this disc the control of dynamics is well done and when the louder passages occur the singing is thrillingly full-throated.

This is a very satisfying disc, which I enjoyed greatly. It's a very appropriate celebration of the significant contribution that Jeremy Summerly and Oxford Camerata have made to the success of the Naxos label. As a limited edition, initial copies of this CD come with a bonus disc of “Early Choral Classics” [61:28]. This contains 13 tracks of music from medieval times to the age of polyphony and the majority are performed by Oxford Camerata.

I'm very happy to recommend this fine disc in its own right but as an anniversary celebration it's doubly welcome. Ad multos annos to both Oxford Camerata and Naxos!

John Quinn

see also Reviews by Kevin Sutton and Paul Shoemaker
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