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.
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.
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!