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Playing Elizabeth’s Tune – The Tallis Scholars sing William Byrd
William BYRD (c.1539 - 1623) Mass for 4 voices; Ave Verum corpus; Diffusa est gratia; Magnificat (Great Service); Ne irascaris; Nunc dimittis (Gradualia); O Lord, make they Servant Elizabeth; Prevent Us, O Lord; Tristia et anxietas; Vigilate; Mass for 5 voices (*); Mass for 3 Voices (*); Tribue Domine (*) (*) Audio only
Tallis Scholars/Peter Philips
Recorded 2004, Tewkesbury Abbey
 GIMELL GIMDP901 [1 DVD 72.23, 69.16, 51.14]


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A recital of the music by William Byrd, sung by the Tallis Scholars under Peter Phillips; what more could you want? Using a choir of around twelve voices, (the exact number varies according to the piece), with female sopranos sounding both pure and expressive, male altos and the familiar Tallis Scholars’ care and attention to line and shape, Peter Phillips and his group deliver an immensely rewarding recital. But then someone decided to go and make a DVD not a CD.

This raises all sorts of issues about what visuals can bring to such a recital, and unfortunately this disc solves none of these. The Tallis Scholars stand in a concert formation arc in the choir of Tewkesbury Abbey for the entire recital. There is no audience, so it would have been welcome if they had tried using the choir stalls; after all this is religious music. The choir are frankly visually uninspiring and poorly styled. This is something that the English musical establishment have not learned from the French. The performances of Les Arts Florissants are not only musically stunning but beautifully styled visually. And would it have been too much to ask for the Tallis Scholars to have sung without the visually distracting scores.

The performance is billed as being by candle-light, but initially the choir are back-lit with a strange blue glow. This changes to yellow/orange, which is less distracting, then finally for the Mass for four voices which concludes the recital, we have just plain candle-light. Even Tewkesbury Abbey is not used to its utmost, as initially the camera never strays beyond the choir. Instead it restlessly roams round giving us individual shots and general shots of the whole group; never resting long enough in one place for us to develop a proper relationship with the choir.

The advantages of DVD are limited on this disc as well. There are subtitles, but they appear at the beginning of each section of a piece and then frustratingly disappear. The running order is different to that printed on the box and there are no printed notes so you have no way of learning about a piece whilst it is playing.

Musically this disc is superb, but frankly I would be just as happy with a CD. The choir give us a fine performance, each lovely line perfectly focused and shaped. But some of these pieces are now understood to be messages of support to the Catholic recusants, so should it sound so simply beautiful?

In addition to the recital there is a documentary about Byrd’s life, presented by Charles Hazelwood. This consists of performances of Byrd’s works alternating with talking heads and sections of continuity from Hazelwood. This works pretty well for Byrd as there is really so much about him that we don’t know. The programme does well at giving the background to the problems of life as a Catholic in Protestant England and manages to cover such illuminating and varied issues as Byrd’s litigiousness and the difficulty of accurately defining what forces actually sang the Gradualia. This documentary re-uses (sometimes bodily) the music from the recital, so that though it does help with the background to the pieces we manage to hear them twice, which perhaps makes us feel short-changed.

Finally, the disc includes an audio bonus of performances of the Mass for 5 voices, Mass for 3 voices and the motet Tribue Domine taken from the choir’s CDs. After the restless and unhelpful visuals of the main recital, it was a blessed relief to sit back and simply listen to the choir’s glorious performances.

Robert Hugill


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