Comparison recordings of Spem
Richard Westenberg, Musica Sacra Chorus,
BMG/RCA Dolby Surround 09026-60970-2
Peter Phillips, The Tallis Scholars.
Gimell 454 906-2
My late room-mate used
to enjoy teasing me about directional
recordings. When I would excitedly rush
home from the shop with a new recording
of a work in stereo where I had heretofore
only had one in monophonic sound, he
would solemnly ask, "....but did
he write it in stereo?"
A pity he is not here to hear me triumphantly
proclaim, yes, Tallis did indeed write
this work in quadraphonic sound. These
forty very capable musicians make up
eight choirs of five voices each arranged
in pairs in the pattern of a cross,
and indeed do sing from the four speakers
in the corners of your listening room.
The genesis of the
work is interesting. In 1567 Alessandro
Striggio came to London from Mantua
with a forty voice motet of his own.
An English nobleman who heard the concert
asked whether or not an Englishman could
"set so good a song." Tallis
took up the challenge; apparently the
first performance of the work was "in
the round" as heard on this recording.
Three years after his death, Tallisís
anthem Absterge Domine was sung to the
words Discomfort them, O Lord
as a prayer for the defeat of the Spanish
Make no mistake, this
is a beautiful recording, but not a
perfect one, for at times during the
louder moments of Spem in alium
and Salve intemerata the hall
acoustic tends to ring disagreeably.
The quieter sections of these and other
works on this disk are most effective.
It could be a question of microphone
placement; I donít detect that the acoustic
has been electronically altered.
A contemporary music
critic referred to this type of church
music as "A pleasant experience
much drawn out." But nobody went
to sleep during a Tallis concert for
just as you get used to the wash of
exquisite consonance, he will throw
you a dissonant passing tone and wake
you up. His putative pupil William Byrd
could do this as well, with equal skill,
no mean trick in modal harmony.
On any recording of
the music of Tallis, the inevitable
question must be answered: No, this
disk does not contain the piece upon
which Vaughan Williams based his Tallis
Fantasia. I know of no recording
of that work, and I had to find the
score and make myself a MIDI file in
order to hear it played on my computer.
Sound in the DVD-Audio
tracks is excellent except for the slight
ringing tendency on the louder passages.
The dts tracks preserve most
of the precise directionality and much
of the smoothness of the DVD-Audio tracks,
while the Dolby tracks tend to a little
more mushy an acoustic and have a higher
distortion level, about like a CD would
be. I have not had the opportunity to
hear an SACD release of this recording.
Musica Sacra is a New
York group of considerable reputation;
they rush through Spem in alium
in under eight minutes. They avoid acoustical
overload in the cathedral of St. John
the Divine by singing rather quietly
and with supporting lines dropping in
volume behind solo lines. Their recording
released in Dolby Surround Sound does
provide sound sources throughout the
listening space, although not with the
accuracy of the discrete 4.0 sound,
however beautifully they sing and however
smooth and ambient the recording. Matrix
quad (such as AC-3, that is Dolby Surround)
is like sex in that it only works if
you donít try to figure it out. Even
the recording by The Tallis Scholars,
who complete the work in just under
ten minutes and who sing with drama
as well as sweetness, expands satisfactorily
in surround sound processing to fill
the listening space. Both these recordings
avoid the ringing overload heard on
the Summerly recording. Heard under
optimum circumstances, these three recordings
are different but are dead equals in
terms of overall beauty and commitment.