Aureole etc.




Golden Age singers

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Faure songs
Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

 

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Gregorio ALLEGRI (1582-1652) Miserere [12’31"]
William MUNDY (c.1529-1591) Vox Patris cælestis [19’16"]
Giovanni Pierluigi da PALESTRINA (c.1525-1594) Missa Papæ Marcelli [36’34"]
The Tallis Scholars/Peter Phillips
rec. Chapel of Merton College, Oxford. 1979-80? AAD
GIMELL GIMSE 401 [68’40"]

Over the years Peter Phillips and the Tallis Scholars have produced a steady stream of first-rate recordings, many of which have deservedly won awards. This famous recording is the one that started it all.

Peter Philips founded the group in 1973 and this, I believe, was their first recording. It was made in the Chapel of Merton College, Oxford, presumably in 1979 or 1980 (the precise date is not given) and it is now issued at budget price to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of that release. Initially the recording was issued on LP and cassette by Classics for Pleasure and it was something of a runaway success, achieving sales of some 120,000 in its first five years in the catalogue. By the time the licence to CfP expired after five years the Gimell label had been well and truly launched by Phillips and his colleague, Steve Smith. They happily reclaimed the rights to their inaugural recording and issued it on CD, since when it’s been a fixture on the Gimell list. In a nice touch the original CfP sleeve design has been retained for this reissue.

The recording is now issued for the first time as a super-budget price CD in celebration of the twenty-fifth anniversary of its first release.

I suppose one major reason for the initial success of the record was the inclusion of Allegri’s Miserere. Personally, I wouldn’t acquire the disc for this repetitious piece, which spins out a modest amount of musical material over a very extended period of time. That said, it receives a fine, dedicated performance here and those who have heard this version before will know that Peter Phillips achieved something of a coup with his placing of the choral forces. The main choir was positioned at one end of the chapel while the solo quartet was stationed at a distance - perhaps at the other end of the chapel? The distancing effect is quite magical and though this is a layout that I’m sure has been copied many times since I suspect that few, if any, previous recordings had been so imaginative. Incidentally, it’s interesting to see that the solo group included counter-tenor Michael Chance, presumably just then embarking on his distinguished career. He is joined in the semi-chorus by soprano Alison Stamp who floats the famous top Cs fearlessly and flawlessly. The excellent singing and the ambience created by the spatial separation together with the engineers’ skill in using the chapel’s intimate but pleasantly resonant acoustic all combine to make this a winning recording of the work.

The remainder of the programme is, for me at least, of much greater musical interest. The motet by the Englishman, William Mundy, is an astonishing achievement. Composed, almost certainly, in the reign of Queen Mary (1553-1558) its style is expansive and exuberant. In his accompanying note Peter Phillips refers to the "sensual connotations" of the text, which is an adaptation of verses from the ‘Song of Solomon’. "Sensual" is just the word to describe this music which grows in complexity and richness as the setting progresses. At the start the music is carried by small consort groups of soloists and the full choir is not heard until several minutes into the piece. Thereafter sections for full choir are juxtaposed with passages for smaller ensembles and Mundy’s splendidly imaginative and intelligent use of varied vocal textures make this an absorbing piece. Incidentally, in the booklet the full Latin text and translations are provided and the various forces used for each section are specified. This helps the listener’s appreciation greatly. One can only describe the last few minutes of music as exuberant and Phillips builds the piece to a fervent, open-throated conclusion. This is an impressive piece of polyphony, most impressively performed.

Palestrina’s Mass setting, which was probably composed in 1556, is roughly contemporaneous with Mundy’s work. It is a very fine achievement, offering concision and directness of expression. The slow, sustained Agnus Dei is exquisitely beautiful and Palestrina’s inspiration is very strong elsewhere too, especially in the Gloria and Credo. This fine Mass is splendidly and convincingly performed here. Some may object that the sound produced by the Tallis Scholars is too "English" for Italian music. I can only say that I find the sheer beauty of sound most compelling and where it’s called for there’s an appropriate degree of fervour. In fact, with the benefit of hindsight one can now say that this performance - and the performances of the other pieces on this disc - exhibits all the hallmarks that we’ve come to associate with this ensemble over the years. Tuning is impeccable, as is the blending of the voices. There’s also a splendid clarity of both diction and texture. It’s easy to take this for granted when one hears such expert singing but it can only be the product of hours of fastidious rehearsing. I also admire greatly the sheer control of the singing. This comes through in the dynamic range and also in the way the long lines of polyphony are spun out with what seems like a timeless inevitability.

This is a disc which has attained something approaching classic status over the years, and rightly so. It was the start of a long, and happily continuing, series of splendid recordings by this group. I’m delighted that this CD is now available at budget price and I hope that this will stimulate interest among a new generation of collectors. In the quarter of a century since it first appeared (and that’s quite a scary thought!) there have been innumerable fine recordings of early and polyphonic vocal music by the Tallis Scholars and by many other equally fine ensembles. However, these performances still stand out from the crowd as benchmarks of excellence.

The recorded sound, though analogue, wears its years lightly and offers very pleasing and truthful reproduction. The documentation, in English, French and German, is good. In summary, this fine disc can be recommended without reservation.

John Quinn
Photographs of the Tallis Scholars, including one of them performing in Merton College Chapel in 1980, can be found at
www.gimell.com/photographs

 

 



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