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Thomas TALLIS (c1505 - 1585)
Spem in Alium (1573) [8.22]
The King’s Singers: David Hurley, Robin Tyson, Paul Phoenix, Philip Lawson, Christopher Gabbitas, Stephen Connolly
rec. Angel Studios, London, UK, 20 October 2004
CD tracks 2.0 Stereo; SACD Tracks 4.0 surround.
Notes in English. Latin text with English translations. Photos of performers.
Bonus feature: Interview with the King’s Singers [6.14]
CD Single SACD / CD Hybrid


Comparison recordings of Spem in Alium:

Oxford Camerata Naxos 5.110111 DVD-Audio/dts/AC-3

Peter Phillips, The Tallis Scholars. Gimell 454 906-2

Richard Westenberg, Musica Sacra Chorus, BMG/RCA Dolby Surround 09026-60970-2

As you can see, this fourteen minute disk with eight minutes of music on it is a “single.” In the six minute talk these eight very capable musicians describe how they make up eight choirs of five voices each, not by running about on stage to make their entrances wherever they occur, but by recording each part separately. They then allow the engineers to arrange them in the pattern of a horseshoe, as they say the original performance was conducted, beginning in the right front speaker and then moving around the horseshoe behind the listener to the left front speaker. Other quadraphonic performances move around the front of the listener.

I have no idea what the product will cost in the market-place, even if you get it free it’s not worth the price. The problem is the resultant sound. It is barely listenable on my small computer speakers in two channel stereo but even there the artifacts of excessive knob twiddling are unfortunately evident. There’s something very unnatural about the sibilants, and the notes tend to scoop disagreeably at times. The reverberant acoustic is at best unreal and at worst a strident hash. I fear they recorded each of the separate eight choir lines - transposed down a whole tone to fit the music to the ranges of the singers - in a dead studio and then expected the engineers to add artificial reverberation to the resulting spatial up mixture. The actual vocal performances were probably quite good, and the potential quality was very high, but whatever promises were made, the engineers did not deliver. The result is, at best, artificial sounding on two channels. On four channels it is grotesque and unpleasant.

As a curiosity this disk may become a collector’s item of some value in the passage of time. But, if you really want a good recording of this work any one of the ones listed above is more satisfactory.

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 don’t 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.

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.

Paul Shoemaker





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