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A Portrait of Thomas Tallis
Thomas TALLIS (1505-1585)
CD1
Ave Dei Patris Filia [15:33]
Salve Intemerata [15:51]
Sancte Deus [5:58]
Hear the Voice and Prayer [3:15]
If Ye Love me [2:13]
A New Commandment [2:50]
Gaude Gloriosa [17:11]
Loquebantur variis Linguis [4:15]
Magnificat for Four Voices [11:56]
CD2
Te lucis ante terminum (festal) [2:07]
Christ Rising Again [4:39]
O Lord, Give Thy Holy Spirit [2:05]
Purge me, O Lord [1:48]
Verily, Verily I Say unto You [1:42]
Remember Not, O Lord God [4:34]
O Lord, in Thee Is All My Trust [2:42]
Tunes for Archbishop Parker’s Psalter [8:36]
Salvator Mundi, Salva Nos 1 [2:19]
O Sacrum Convivium [3:15]
In Manus Tuas [1:51]
Absterge Domine [5:31]
Miserere Nostri [2:18]
Salvator Mundi, Salva Nos 2 [2:21]
Spem in Alium [10:03]
Lamentations of Jeremiah I [7:48]
Lamentations of Jeremiah II [12:20]
Blessed Are Those That Be Undefiled [4:16]
Chapelle du Roi/Alistair Dixon
From Signum SIGCD001 and SIGCD002, rec. St Augustine’s Church, Kilburn, London, 23-25 October 1996, 10-13 February 1997; SIGCD003, SIGCD010, SIGCD016, SIGCD022, SIGCD029, rec St Jude’s Church, Hampstead, London, 28-30 May 1997, July 1998, 12-14 October 1998, 24-26 July 2000, 13-15 November 2000; SIGCD036, rec. All Hallows Church, Gospel Oak, London 24-27 September 2002.  DDD.
Booklet with notes in English but no texts.
PORTRAIT CLASSICS PCL2101 [79:07 + 79:45]

The provenance of this 2-CD set guarantees its quality: licensed by a division of Regis from Signum’s excellent 9-CD survey of Tallis’s music. 

CD1 opens with two of the Marian antiphons from SIGCD001, music composed in the early part of Tallis’s long career.  These antiphons would have been sung at the end of Compline, the forerunners of the Anthem at the end of Evensong in the Anglican rite, though their Mariolatry did not, of course, survive the Reformation.  At this stage Tallis was the largely unknown organist of Dover Priory and later director of a choir in Billingsgate, London.  His move to the Augustinian abbey at Waltham Cross was especially inauspicious: he had hardly arrived there before it was closed in the Dissolution.  The music is attractive enough – very much in the manner of that of his contemporaries, though no match for what Taverner and Sheppard were producing – so there is not too much lost by having only two pieces from this first Signum CD.

The next four pieces, from SIGCD002, date from the 1540s, by which time Tallis had moved, first to Canterbury Cathedral and then to the Chapel Royal, where he spent the rest of his working life.  At Canterbury, under Cranmer, and at Westminster he was well placed to catch the mood of the times and these works illustrate the plainer style which was already coming into favour before the end of the reign of Henry VIII, a process accelerated by the accession of Edward VI and the introduction of the Book of Common Prayer in 1549.  Hardly had composers caught up with settings of the 1549 Book when the more protestant 1552 Book superseded it.  This must have been a period of unsettling change for Tallis, but the four pieces recorded here show how well he coped with it.

The reign of Queen Mary saw a temporary return to Rome and the return of the Latin rite.  The Marian Gaude gloriosa , from SIGCD003, comes from this period.  SIGCD010 and 016 also contain music for the Latin rite, this time music employed at the canonical Hours: the Magnificat is sung at Vespers throughout the year and Te lucis at Compline daily, though the version of Te lucis offered here is a festal setting, for use on red-letter days.  Loquebantur is a text for Whitsun (Pentecost), relating the manner in which the apostles ‘spake in diverse tongues’. 

The pieces excerpted here from these three discs represent Tallis’s mid-period Latin-rite music very well, though it is a shame that the (incomplete) Christmas Mass Puer natus est nobis could not be included.

Volume 6, SIGCD022 offers Music for a Reformed Church.  The first of these, Christ Rising, was prescribed in the Prayer Book of 1549 and again in the Elizabethan Book of 1559 for use on Easter day, part of the ‘maimed rites’ substituted for the elaborate ceremonies of the Sarum Missal and Breviary.  The five pieces which follow had no liturgical use, though they may have been sung as Anthems at the end of Mattins or Evensong.  Verily, verily, with its Eucharistic connotations, may very well have been sung at the end of Sunday Mattins, which was normally followed in Elizabethan times by the Litany and Holy Communion.

None of this is Tallis’s greatest music but some of the tunes written for Archbishop Parker’s Psalter are very attractive.  They have resonance for the modern listener because of their adaptations in modern hymnals and because Vaughan Williams derived his Tallis Fantasia from this source.  The music included here from Volume 6 is welcome but few will regret the omission of the settings of the canticles and preces.  These were set to greater effect by his colleague and successor Byrd in his Great Service, but the Evensong canticles would have been worth inclusion if space had permitted. Perhaps we really needed a 3-CD set.

Volume 7, SIGCD029, Music for Queen Elizabeth, contains Tallis’s greatest music.  The two settings of Salvator Mundi, O Sacrum Convivium, In Manus Tuas, Absterge Domine and Miserere Nostri are all taken from this disc, all very fine music.  Only the omission of O nata lux is regrettable.  It is, however, included on an excellent bargain-price Classics for Pleasure CD of music by Tallis and John Sheppard: the Clerkes of Oxenford directed by David Wulstan on 5 75982 2. 

Spem in alium is also included; many collectors will already have several versions of this masterpiece, but its inclusion here in such a fine performance is hardly to be regretted.  The omission of its English contrafactum, Sing and glorify, is no great loss, nor is that of Discomfort them O Lord, the contrafactum of Absterge Domine, which is (rightly) included here in the Latin original.  Several of Tallis’s Latin works had alternative English texts, known as contrafacta (literally ‘counterfeits’) imposed on them: several of these are skilfully done, but their omission on this 2-CD set is hardly regrettable when their originals are included. 

Volume 8, SIGCD036, Lamentations and English Motets, is represented mainly by the two settings of the Lamentations of Jeremiah from the first and second nocturnes of Matins for Maundy Thursday in the Sarum Breviary.  Though the breviary was replaced by the Prayer Book, these pieces could still have been used in cathedrals and in the Chapel Royal, perhaps replacing the first lesson for Mattins from the self-same chapter of Lamentations. 

I have already indicated that the omission of the English contrafacta included in Volume 8 was no great loss but the one English piece from this volume which has been included, Blessed are Those, is welcome.  The notes in the booklet suggest that the title Beati immaculati may indicate a lost Latin original, but the Prayer Book printed the traditional Latin opening words of every psalm and the beginning of each section of Psalm 119, from which these words are taken.

Chapelle du Roi was barely out of its infancy when the first CD in this series was issued but they sang with complete assurance even then.  Reviewing that first CD, my colleague John Portwood noted some slight shakiness of intonation in the most exposed passages but this was not apparent to me in the two Marian antiphons selected here from that disc. 

After that, things got even better: by the second CD John Portwood’s reservations had disappeared.  “The Chapelle du Roi acquit themselves in an excellent fashion,” he wrote – and I echo his words precisely.  He was even more enamoured of their performance on the third disc and again I cannot do better than to echo his words: “The intonation is excellent and the music appears to float through the air but in perfect rhythm.”  The slight strain which he noted in Gaude gloriosa did not really trouble me.

The recording of the famous 40-part Spem in alium first appeared alongside its transmogrification into English as Sing and Glorify, on a CD single, in which form it received a rather mixed review from Robert Hugill.  John Portwood agreed that Sing and Glorify sounded muddy but made the reasonable point that a 40-part piece is almost bound to sound muddy.  (This applies even more to Striggio’s 60-part writing, as presented at the 2007 Proms.)  Once again, I can only agree with JP’s statement that, overall, the singing is marvellous.  Even the pieces from Parker’s Psalter are not deemed too trivial for the singers to give them fine performances. 

I take issue with John Portwood on one small matter, the question of Latin.  The Puritan faction may not have liked it, but the Queen did and there was no problem about its use at court or in cathedrals and larger churches.  In fact, the taste for settings of the Latin Lamentations was nowhere greater than in Elizabethan England.  Whilst recusants like Tallis and Byrd may have intended their settings of Latin music for private performance by their co-religionists, other composers who had no such intention continued to set Latin texts, including the Lamentations.  This especially applies to texts such as Salvator Mundi which appear in the Prayer Book in English versions: “O Saviour of the world, who by thy Cross and precious Blood hast redeemed us, save us and help us, we humbly beseech thee, O Lord.”. 

In his review of SIGCD016 John Portwood compares the singing of the Chapelle favourably with that of the Oxford Camerata on Naxos.  Whilst I think that he is a little too judgemental of the Oxford team there, I note that he does not compare the two versions of the Lamentations.  The Chapelle render these excellently, but so do the Camerata on Naxos 8.550572, coupled with Palestrina, etc.  Even if you buy this recording you will not regret the duplication and small extra expense involved in also buying the Naxos. 

I have borrowed very largely from John Portwood’s original reviews, so it is only fair that I direct you with hyperlinks to the originals. Volume 1, Volume 2, Volume 3, Volume 5 and Volume 8.  Volume 9 is not represented on the current CDs but I include a link here 

In his review of Volume 5 JP complains of a small degree of ‘hootiness’ from the altos, a fault which he also attributes to earlier volumes.  Another reviewer complains of a degree of glassiness from a prominent treble.  Neither of these really bothered me in listening to the new set: it may be that they are particularly problematic in pieces not included here. 

The recording retains all the virtues of the original CDs – the recording locations well chosen and the reproduction excellent. 

The booklet contains some useful notes on the music and the performers, though no texts are offered.  In this respect, the presentation is clearly inferior to the scholarly and informative notes of the parent Signum CDs, which remain available.  The prospect of a very well filled 2-CD selection at bargain price (around £10 for the set in the UK) will probably prove too tempting for the general music-lover, but specialists will still be better served by the full 9 CDs.  If bought as a set, these are available at a discount over the price of the individual discs.  There is a slight feel of bargain-basement about the present set (perhaps it’s the artwork) but I very much welcome its appearance – there aren’t too many bargains in the field of Renaissance church music.

The chief competition for the present set comes from the Tallis Scholars on a 2-CD set, CDGIM203, a little more expensive than the Portrait set, at around £11 in the UK.  I agree with Gary Higginson who thought this 400th-anniversary issue a must-have but the new set will form a very useful alternative which I shall return to as often as I now do to the Tallis Scholars.  The Tallis Scholars set will probably appeal more to the general music-lover, since it concentrates on the major works.  The Portrait version will appeal more to the specialist, since it contains music from the various periods of Tallis’s creative career. I hope that Portrait Classics have more sets like this up their sleeves.

Brian Wilson
 

 

 


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