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The Tallis Scholars - Renaissance Giants
CD 1
Thomas TALLIS (c.1505-1585)
Spem in alium [9:58]
John TAVERNER (c.1490-1545)
Western Wind Mass [32.18]
Josquin DES PRÉS (c.1440-1521)
Missa Pange lingua [29:47]
CD 2
Giovanni Pierluigi da PALESTRINA (c.1525-1594)
Missa Brevis [21:38]
William BYRD (1543-1623)
Mass for four voices [22:06]
Tomás Luis da VICTORIA (1548-1611)
Requiem [35:26]
The Tallis Scholars/Peter Phillips (director)
rec. Merton College Chapel, Oxford:1985 Tallis, 1986 des Prés, 1986 Palestrina, 1984 Byrd. Salle Church, Norfolk: 1993 Taverner. St.John, Hackney, London: 1987 Victoria
GIMELL CDGIM 207 [72:03 + 79:10]
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This is a specially priced 2CD compilation of some of The Tallis Scholars’ notable recordings from the mid-1980s and early 1990s. Keen collectors can already be heard rummaging through their collections to see how many of these recordings they already have, but through the ugly din of clattering jewel cases shine some of the jewels of vocal musicianship in the last two decades. Purchasers who are lucky enough to possess these works already can now spread the word with this, the classiest stocking-filler this side of 2006.
The High Renaissance is replete with cultural giants. Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael and Michelangelo all represent a period when the human spirit seemed to expand and gain in confidence. There are few more visible proofs of this than Michelangelo’s seventeen-foot-tall statue of David, the theme for the illustration on the cover of this set. “This collection is designed to illustrate the musical side of this astonishing period in European history, from England via Flanders and Spain to Rome.” Indeed, this it does, quite magnificently.
The first disc begins with Thomas Tallis’ incredible Spem in Alium, written for forty independent voice-parts arranged in eight five-part choirs. The recording begins with what seems to be a strange balance, with numerous voices seemingly relegated to the background. The volume – and I don’t mean just noise – builds, rising and falling throughout the piece with wave upon wave of glorious high melodic imitation cruising over a bed of voices engaged in their own intricate counterpoints. You can play this 10 minute work time and time again and will always be discovering new things. ‘A crushing tsunami of terrifyingly beautiful sound’ is the way one reviewer summed up this recording, and who am I to disagree.     
Throughout the Renaissance period there was a fashion for taking popular tunes of the day and arranging them for their own purposes. John Taverner chose the beautiful melody known as ‘Westron Wynde’, a love song which encourages the wind and the rain to do their worst so long as the singer and his beloved can be together. This piece is unusual in that the tune is quoted thirty-six times, something certainly unsurpassed in this period, and only rivalled much later by Purcell. The tune is often undisguised, and Taverner resists any temptation to pad the piece out with extra material. The variations are however always interesting, and there is plenty of variety between solo and full choral passages.
The Missa Pange lingua by Josquin des Prés is perhaps his best known work, and thought by many to be his last Mass-setting. It is not dissimilar from Taverner’s Western Wind Mass in conception, being a set of variations on a well-known chant melody, this time from the liturgy for the feast of Corpus Christi. Josquin however almost never quotes it without some kind of embellishment or deviation, and it often so hidden in the polyphonic texture that the whole composition can be thought of as a “fantasy on a plainsong”.
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina was easily the most celebrated Italian composer of the High Renaissance and, like Josquin, a legend in his own lifetime: closely identified with the culture of the Italian Renaissance period as none other. His Missa Brevis was probably written for the Sistine Chapel choir to sing, which would mean that its first performances might well have taken place surrounded by Michelangelo’s newly painted frescoes, that or surrounded by the scaffolding on which the great artist suffered for so many years. There is a lovely moment at the end of the Kyrie when you can just hear a bird singing somewhere within earshot. 
William Byrd is best remembered for his many small-scale pieces which, despite their lack of grand scale, revolutionized composition in England. Byrd, in common with many composers of his time, turned his hand to every form of music required of him. Instrumental and vocal forms were transformed by his genius, something which put him greatly in demand and allowed him to work for both the Catholic and Protestant churches in a time when such practices could spell professional suicide. Byrd’s Mass for four voices is one of the three Masses he wrote in the 1590s and published, without title pages, in defiance of the Protestant ban on Catholic music.
The Spanish sixteenth century had its own great names, many of whom flourished under the patronage of the Catholic Church. Tomás Luis de Victoria was ordained priest in Rome in 1575 he spent the years from 1587 until his death employed at the court in Madrid, initially acting as chaplain to the Dowager Empress Maria, for whose funeral he wrote this Requiem in 1603. Victoria only wrote sacred music, but for many the six-voice Requiem is without rival amongst High Renaissance masterpieces. The slow, inevitable unfolding of this music has an irresistibly gorgeous serenity which is an appropriate close for this magnificent set.
This issue has been provided with concise notes by Peter Phillips, to whom I must apologise for quoting copiously from in this review. The problem is always, how to describe in words what seems to be a kind of perfection in music. These renowned recordings have received justifiable plaudits in the past, and now sound every bit as wonderful as the day they hit the record-shop shelves. Despite a considerable span of time and some venue-hopping between pieces, there is no sense of any recording being drastically different or in any way inferior to another. The sumptuous choral writing of Palestrina and Victoria contrasts well with the smaller scale of Byrd, as do the wondrous excesses of Spem in alium against the more gently intimate Taverner, and the inspired refinement of Des Prés. In other words, programming, performance and production are well-nigh faultless, and having all of these masterpieces in one set is like having the never–ending pint: our cup runneth over.  

Dominy Clements




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