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Christmas With The Tallis Scholars
Medieval Carols:
Angelus ad virginem [2’39]. Nowell sing we [3’01]. There is no rose [3’35].
The Coventry Carol:
Lullay: I saw [2’19]. Lulla, lulla, thou tiny little child [3’20].
Ave Maria:

Josquin DESPREZ (c1440-1521) Ave Maria for four voices [5’25].
Philippe VERDELOT (c1470/80-before 1552) Beata es virgo/Ave Maria [5’40].
Tomás Luis de VICTORIA (1548-1611) Ave Maria for four voices (attrib) [2’15]. Ave Maria for double choir [4’51].
German Chorales:

Michael PRAETORIUS (?1571-1621)
Es ist ein’ Ros’ [3’06].

Hieronymous PRAETORIUS (1560-1629)
Joseph, lieber Joseph mein [2’30]. In dulci jubilo [3’41].
Flemish Polyphony:

Clemens Non PAPA (c1510-c1555)
Pastores quidnam vidistis [4’43]. Missa Pastores quidnam vidistis [31’15].
Chant from Salisbury:
Missa in gallicantu (First Mass of Christmas) [31’15]. Christmas Hymns: Christe Redemptor omnium [3’49]; Veni, Redemptor gentium [4’30]; Slavator mundi, Domine [2’31]; A solis ortus cardine [4’59].
Tudor Polyphony:

Thomas TALLIS (c1505-1585)
Missa Puer natus est nobis (compl. Wulstan and Dunkley) [23’54].

The Tallis Scholars/Peter Phillips.
Rec. c.1986-1998 at The Church of St Peter and Paul, Salle, Norfolk and Merton College, Oxford.
GIMELL CDGIM202 [156’42: 78’8 + 78’34]

 

To have two special Christmas discs in one year is a treat. The Kings Singers on Signum SIGCD502 provided warm fireside glows aplenty; here on the Gimell side of the fence, the Tallis Scholars provide a carefully-planned feast of carols, plainchant and polyphony. Both should be on your Christmas present shopping list as they complement each other perfectly and largely avoid duplication (although you may find it difficult to give either product away should the discs ‘find their way’ to your machine first!).

The Gimell twofer is predominantly a devotional Christmas offering culled from four previous, separate releases. Each disc closes with a major Mass setting (Clemens non Papa on Disc 1, Tallis on Disc 2). Medieval Carols, German Chorales and Ave Maria settings balance the Flemish mass of Clemens, while Salisbury Chant (including the substantial Missa in gallicantu) shares disc space with the Tallis’ Missa Puer natus est nobis. Reatailing at £12 (a mere six pounds per disc), it would appear this is a gift for the purchaser, as well!.

It is interesting to experience the various well-known pieces in a ‘serious’ liturgical context. The performance standard of whatever genre is unremittingly superb. The compilation starts with the sprung rhythms of a Medieval Carol, Angelus ad virginem, leading to the (period) joy of Nowell sing we and the beautifully balanced and poised There is no rose. If perhaps the recording should have slightly more space for Lulla, lulla, thou tiny little child, the Tallis Scholars bring out the emotive contrast of the ‘Herod verse’ (‘Herod, the king/In his raging/ …’) perfectly, raising a pretty carol to the level of a more substantial musical statement.

A fascinating idea to juxtapose four settings of the Ave Maria. It is impossible to grade them in terms of quality – they each have their own magic. Josquin’s is a beautiful, slow unfolding of polyphonic wonder that exudes calm and serenity; Verdelot’s harmonic mastery makes his offering seem entirely natural while the Victoria offerings (one only attrib. Victoria) point towards this Spanish composer’s mystic side. The German Chorales provide almost light relief before the substantial Mass offering. They have a warm glow (try ‘In dulci jubilo’), but it is perhaps M. Praetorius’ ‘Es ist ein Ros’ that provides the highlight.

The Clemens setting of Pastores quidnam vidistis that precedes the Mass proper exemplifies the Tallis Scholars’ strength in this music. Despite the musical complexity, textures are miraculously clarified. To walk the line between the overall choral sound and the maintenance of integrity of lines is difficult indeed, and it is a challenge that the Tallis Scholars evidently feed on with enthusiasm. But none of this really prepares the listener for the revelatory performance of the Clemens mass, characterised by extreme beauty. Listen, for example, to the restrained statements of ‘Laudamus te’ (‘We praise you’), full of the utmost veneration, or the shifting textures of the ‘Sanctus’. This account of Clemens non Papa’s mass seems the perfect way to end the first disc.

The second disc concentrates more on plainchant and music based on it. In fact it begins with a complete mass in plainsong, the first Mass of Christmas, Missa in gallicantu (‘in gallicantu’ = ‘at cockcrow’: the mass would have taken place at dawn). This is tremendously restful music. In the best sense of the expression, this seems to go on forever – and one wishes fervently it would, indeed, never end. The Missa in gallicantu takes up the first fourteen tracks of the second disc. No (aural) warning is given of the bell in the Sequentia, ‘Nato canunt omnia’ (track 7: it is in fairness mentioned in the booklet note, possibly for those with weaker hearts). Suffice it to say that should you be nodding at this point (perish the thought), nod you will no longer. The bell is played by none other than the noted musical authority Ivan Moody. The alternating tenors of the Lesson (from the Book of Isaiah - one voice has the text while the other inserts the trope) is most tastefully done, the voices nicely separated in the acoustic space as well as being timbrally contrasted.

To complement the Mass, the Tallis Scholars present four hymns for the Offices of Christmas Day (one each, in order, from Matins, Vespers, Compline and Lauds). True, in an isolated hearing and purely musically one would never associate these explicitly with Christmas, yet they do form the perfect foil for Tallis’ Tudor polyphony in his Missa Puer natus (completed here by David Wulstan and Sally Dunkley), based on the Christmas plainchant of that name. Possibly composed in honour of the visit of Philip II of Spain to England in 1554, it is one of Tallis’ most impressive compositions, a veritable compendium of compositional techniques old and new at this time. There is no Kyrie (it was not considered part of the Ordinary at this time in England). The Tallis Scholars realise the work’s importance and lavish their customary care on it. After the monophonic Christmas hymns, the opening of the Mass appears as a long-awaited blossoming. The work is 24 minutes of pure magic – one can only listen, jaw agape, at Tallis’ mastery. The recording again allows for Tallis’ textures, so that even at their most complex the whole is never ‘crowded’.

A final note on the cover, which reproduces a detail from one of the (to my mind) greatest of Florentine Renaissance artists, Fra Angelico (c1400-1455). Although born in Tuscany, the convent of San Marco in Florence holds the greatest of his treasures. The painting used by Gimell is, aptly enough, ‘The Adoration of the Magi’ (c1445). The whole magnificent work of art can be seen on the web at http://www.kfki.hu/~arthp/html/a/angelico/ (click on the relevant thumbnail for a screen-sized experience; or alternatively but possibly less realistically go to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, USA).

Thanks are due to Gimell for a very rewarding and often intensely beautiful Christmas experience.

Colin Clarke

 

 



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