This is perhaps the
most problematical of the entire series
of Thomas Tallis’s complete works –
at least from the listener’s point of
view. Like all ‘complete works’ there
comes a time for gathering up the residual
pieces that may or may not come up to
the standard of the composer’s more
‘popular’ repertoire. Often it includes
works that are not understood to be
in the composer’s prevailing style.
Sometimes this can result in a very
uneven disc – full of odds and ends.
It may include pieces that ought to
be forgotten, or at best given only
an occasional airing. Yet on the other
side of the coin, it can be extremely
interesting to engage with pieces that
are virtually unknown to the majority
of listeners and sometimes may be receiving
their one (and only) performance.
I must confess that
I am a bit of a train-spotter. I would
rather have a composer’s work even if
it is not the best of his output. Yet
the arguments about second and third
rate works do not apply with this disc.
It would, of course, be over-egging
the pudding to state that every track
on this CD is vital to our understanding
of Tudor music in general or Tallis
in particular. However this double disc
set from Signum fills in some of the
gaps that have become apparent as I
have studied the Tallis discography.
The programme notes declare that this
volume explores some of the most obscure
and enigmatic of the composer’s works.
We must not allow any negative notion
of ‘obscure’ and ‘enigmatic’ to put
However there is a
health warning - it is not possible
to listen to this disc at a single sitting.
It is not fair on the listener’s sensibilities
or the composer’s reputation to plough
through some twenty seven tracks of
varied music. Some of these works are
only 38 seconds long and some last a
good quarter of an hour.
It is not necessary
to detail each track on this disc in
this review. It is much more important
to get across the view that this recording
is a vital part of our understanding
of Tallis’s music. It allows us to see
a side of the composer that is not normally
understood. There is a mix of sacred
and secular, vocal, instrumental and
keyboard presented in a reasonably logical
This suggests that
it is better to explore sections of
this CD rather than the whole. I would
tend to begin with the songs for counter-tenor
and lute. After this it would be refreshing
to listen to the harpsichord and virginal
numbers. The consort music should be
approached as a unity. The organ music
is perhaps the hardest part of this
CD to come to grips with. It is not
that the music is uninteresting or difficult
– it is just that most people, even
organ enthusiasts, will find the somewhat
‘spare’ style takes a little getting
used to. It is all so very different
to Bach, Widor and Howells!
I have listened to
the other eight volumes of this landmark
recording project. It has been an instructive
as well as a moving and spiritually
uplifting experience. There is no doubt
that Thomas Tallis is one of the most
important British composers. In fact
it would be churlish not to further
include him in the pantheon of all-time
great composers – alongside Victoria,
Orlando Lassus and Palestrina.
The presentation is
excellent. The sound quality produced
by this small label is second to none.
The programme notes are comprehensive
and tell listeners all they could wish
to know about this relatively unknown
music. Would that all CD companies were
so thorough in their scholarship!
The playing is based
on rigorous study. I understand that
a new performing edition was prepared
for use on these recordings. The playing
and singing is absolutely stunning and
I have no reason to doubt that this
is and will probably remain the
definitive account of these little known
and rediscovered works. The performance
of the ‘consort’ music is by Charivari
Agréable assisted by various
soloists as appropriate. It is impossible
to fault this performance. Every nuance
and every detail is attended to. I imagine
that Tallis himself never heard his
music so well performed.
One of the joys of
these discs is the use of genuine historical
instruments. The organ, which features
in many tracks, is in the late medieval
chapel of Knole in Kent. This is believed
to be the oldest organ in England, having
been originally installed around 1623.
It is obviously later than Tallis, but
probably represents the kind of instrument
he would have been familiar with. Knole
Chapel was owned by both Henry VIII
and Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, so the
setting is ideal for these recordings.
The virginals are all
period instruments dating from the late
16th century and the harpsichord
was built in Italy around 1590. The
lutes are modern.
One last word. There
is a ‘bonus’ disc with this CD with
four additional pieces. One of these
works, the Litany, was omitted
from a previous volume due to lack of
space. Two short ‘Versets’ for
organ are believed to be dubious works
and the last work on the bonus disk
is a version of ‘Felix Namque’
for organ. It is included on disc one
of this release in two versions – one
for lute and the other for virginal.