is a specially priced 2CD compilation of some of The Tallis
Scholars’ notable recordings from the mid-1980s and early
1990s. Keen collectors can already be heard rummaging through
their collections to see how many of these recordings they
already have, but through the ugly din of clattering jewel
cases shine some of the jewels of vocal musicianship in the
last two decades. Purchasers who are lucky enough to possess
these works already can now spread the word with this, the
classiest stocking-filler this side of 2006.
High Renaissance is replete with cultural giants. Leonardo
da Vinci, Raphael and Michelangelo all represent a period
when the human spirit seemed to expand and gain in confidence.
There are few more visible proofs of this than Michelangelo’s
seventeen-foot-tall statue of David, the theme for the illustration
on the cover of this set. “This collection is designed to
illustrate the musical side of this astonishing period in
European history, from England via Flanders and Spain to
Rome.” Indeed, this it does, quite magnificently.
first disc begins with Thomas Tallis’ incredible Spem
in Alium, written for forty independent voice-parts arranged
in eight five-part choirs. The recording begins with what
seems to be a strange balance, with numerous voices seemingly
relegated to the background. The volume – and I don’t mean
just noise – builds, rising and falling throughout the piece
with wave upon wave of glorious high melodic imitation cruising
over a bed of voices engaged in their own intricate counterpoints.
You can play this 10 minute work time and time again and
will always be discovering new things. ‘A crushing tsunami
of terrifyingly beautiful sound’ is the way one reviewer
summed up this recording, and who am I to disagree.
the Renaissance period there was a fashion for taking popular
tunes of the day and arranging them for their own purposes.
John Taverner chose the beautiful melody known as ‘Westron
Wynde’, a love song which encourages the wind and the rain
to do their worst so long as the singer and his beloved can
be together. This piece is unusual in that the tune is quoted
thirty-six times, something certainly unsurpassed in this
period, and only rivalled much later by Purcell. The tune
is often undisguised, and Taverner resists any temptation
to pad the piece out with extra material. The variations
are however always interesting, and there is plenty of variety
between solo and full choral passages.
Pange lingua by Josquin des Prés is perhaps his best
known work, and thought by many to be his last Mass-setting.
It is not dissimilar from Taverner’s Western Wind Mass in
conception, being a set of variations on a well-known chant
melody, this time from the liturgy for the feast of Corpus
Christi. Josquin however almost never quotes it without
some kind of embellishment or deviation, and it often so
hidden in the polyphonic texture that the whole composition
can be thought of as a “fantasy on a plainsong”.
Pierluigi da Palestrina was easily the most celebrated Italian
composer of the High Renaissance and, like Josquin, a legend
in his own lifetime: closely identified with the culture
of the Italian Renaissance period as none other. His Missa
Brevis was probably written for the Sistine Chapel choir
to sing, which would mean that its first performances might
well have taken place surrounded by Michelangelo’s newly
painted frescoes, that or surrounded by the scaffolding on
which the great artist suffered for so many years. There
is a lovely moment at the end of the Kyrie when you
can just hear a bird singing somewhere within earshot.
Byrd is best remembered for his many small-scale pieces which,
despite their lack of grand scale, revolutionized composition
in England. Byrd, in common with many composers of his time,
turned his hand to every form of music required of him. Instrumental
and vocal forms were transformed by his genius, something
which put him greatly in demand and allowed him to work for
both the Catholic and Protestant churches in a time when
such practices could spell professional suicide. Byrd’s Mass
for four voices is one of the three Masses he wrote in
the 1590s and published, without title pages, in defiance
of the Protestant ban on Catholic music.
Spanish sixteenth century had its own great names, many of
whom flourished under the patronage of the Catholic Church.
Tomás Luis de Victoria was ordained priest in Rome in 1575
he spent the years from 1587 until his death employed at
the court in Madrid, initially acting as chaplain to the
Dowager Empress Maria, for whose funeral he wrote this Requiem in
1603. Victoria only wrote sacred music, but for many the
six-voice Requiem is without rival amongst High Renaissance
masterpieces. The slow, inevitable unfolding of this music
has an irresistibly gorgeous serenity which is an appropriate
close for this magnificent set.
issue has been provided with concise notes by Peter Phillips,
to whom I must apologise for quoting copiously from in this
review. The problem is always, how to describe in words what
seems to be a kind of perfection in music. These renowned
recordings have received justifiable plaudits in the past,
and now sound every bit as wonderful as the day they hit
the record-shop shelves. Despite a considerable span of time
and some venue-hopping between pieces, there is no sense
of any recording being drastically different or in any way
inferior to another. The sumptuous choral writing of Palestrina
and Victoria contrasts well with the smaller scale of Byrd,
as do the wondrous excesses of Spem in alium against
the more gently intimate Taverner, and the inspired refinement
of Des Prés. In other words, programming, performance and
production are well-nigh faultless, and having all of these
masterpieces in one set is like having the never–ending pint:
our cup runneth over.