Amazingly the main works on this disc were recorded
25 years ago. The recording of Palestrina’s Missa Benedicta
es along with the accompanying plainchant and motet
by Josquin, was one of the first issued by The Tallis Scholars
on their Gimell label. The mass was re-issued on CD in
1990 but has now been coupled with another early Palestrina
mass, Missa Nasce la gioja mia, to provide a wonderful
treat for lovers of Palestrina’s music.
Even on the early, 1981 recording, the characteristics
that make up a performance by The Tallis Scholars are fully
in evidence with lively rhythms, wonderful transparent
textures, a lovely sense of line with clear balance between
the voices. This clarity is one of the great things about
their performances; lines and textures are always beautifully
clear and each line is sung with a good attention to shape
and detail. Peter Philips directs everything with a great
fluidity of tempo.
Palestrina’s Missa Benedicta es was for a long
time labelled as Missa Sine titulo. The mass was
an early work, completed in 1562 and its displaying of
Franco-Flemish musical traits has led scholars to realise
that Palestrina based the mass on Josquin’s motet Benedicta
es. This motet, dating from around 1500, is in turn
based on the plainchant sequence Benedicta es. On
this disc The Tallis Scholars give us finely turned performances
of the plainchant, Josquin’s motet and Palestrina’s substantial
mass. Palestrina’s interest in Franco-Flemish models would
lead to other things such as the Missa Papae Marcelli,
the mass that immediately followed Missa Benedicata
es. Missa Papae Marcelli shows many of the Franco-Flemish
influences that are apparent in Missa Benedicta es.
The performance from The Tallis Scholars is admirable
and richly textured. There are moments, such as in the Agnus
Dei, when the singers sound a little tired but this
never detracts from what is a very fine performance.
On this disc the Missa Benedicta es is accompanied
by Missa Nasce la gioja mia, which is an early work
of Palestrina’s which would exert little influence on his
later output. The mass is one of the last that he ever
wrote based on a madrigal, in this case one by Primavera.
Primavera wrote lightweight three-voiced works to Neapolitan
texts. The musical material that Palestrina had to work
with was relatively straightforward and rather short-breathed,
as such it must have been something of a challenge for
the composer, albeit one that he never felt inclined to
repeat. Still, the result is charming and fascinating.
Palestrina set the mass for SSATTB and gave the tenor parts
rather a high tessitura. At times the tenors sound a little
too dominant, consequently balance is not always quite
what you expect from this group. This is really the only
respect in which the recording shows its age.
Since these discs were recorded, views on the ideal
performance of this style of music have developed and multiplied.
The Tallis Scholars’ approach, with its sculpted perfection
of phrase, avoidance of vibrato and cool perfection, was
once seen as the acme of style in this music. But with
the development of more native Italian groups performing
this repertoire, many groups have been exploring ways of
performing Palestrina with the emphasis on intensity and
Another aspect of The Tallis Scholars’ approach is the
presentation of each mass as a found object, with no attempt
to re-create its original setting as part of the sung mass.
This is a perfectly valid point of view, but when listening
to a mass as long as Missa Benedicta es, I often
feel that Palestrina’s work would be set off by the inclusion
of some contrasting plainchant between the movements.
Though other, more intensely passionate styles of performance
of Palestrina might appeal, if you want a performance of Missa
Benedicta es then this is your only possible disc
and frankly you can’t go wrong with the stylish perfection
of The Tallis Scholars.