I must confess that the name of the Ensemble Européen William Byrd was new to me. The group was formed in 1990 by conductor Graham O'Reilly and it sings music from the Renaissance and Baroque periods, generally using one voice per part. On this disc, O'Reilly uses an ensemble of nine singers (two treble, two mean, two counter-tenor, one tenor and two bass) from which to provide the singers. Both trebles are women and one of the means is a woman. The disc contains a selection of Tallis's Latin church music.
The programme opens with Tallis's glorious Gaude gloriosa Dei Mater which probably dates from the reign of Queen Mary, though some writers place it during the end of the reign of Henry VIII. It is almost certainly Tallis's final motet in this form, a glorious summation of rich early Tudor polyphony. It makes strong demands on the singers, particularly if they are singing one to a part, as here. I must confess that I found this performance a little too closely recorded for comfort. The young singers are talented, but the recording highlights any slight weaknesses in performance, certainly the top soprano part gives the singer cause for thought. Also, the music demands that it be performed with a reasonable amount of space around it. Yes, we want to hear the details of Tallis's lines, but they should be able to flower and resonate. Here, you are listening to vocal chamber music and the voices don't exactly coalesce into an ensemble.
The motet is followed by a pair of responds, Loquebantur variis linquis and Audivi covem de caelo. Loquebantur, a seven-part setting for low voices, also dates from Tallis's Marian period and here the group captures the pieces' dark textures. Audivi is probably earlier and uses just four upper parts which gives it a lovely transparent, high texture. Loquebantur may well have been written for the combined forces of the Spanish and English chapels as was the motet Suscipe quaeso Domine which sets a seventh century Spanish prayer. The final respond on the disc is Dum transisset Sabbatum. These shorter pieces respond better to the group's intimate approach, though I still find that individual voices stand out more than I like.
In the CD booklet, the notes refer to the origins of manuscript sources in collections assembled in the Elizabethan period. These were private collections and the notes talk about trying to re-create the more intimate circumstances of private performance rather than the splendour of the Royal chapel for which these pieces were written. We are asked to think of the disc as a recital of vocal chamber music.
I don't find this approach completely convincing in the second set of the Lamentations of Jeremiah where the approach is quite vibrant but lacks the sense of line and controlled beauty that I want. You feel that individual gesture rather than musical line is the most important feature of these performances.
The disc concludes with another Marian antiphon, Salve intemerata which is one of Tallis's earliest works. This represents the glorious flowering of early Tudor polyphony and its florid writing is astonishing. As with the performance of Gaude gloriosa Dei Mater which opens the disc, I feel that the performance does not quite succeed. I don't want to hear this as a piece of chamber music; I want to hear it with acoustic space around it, so that the music can flower.
Turning to comparable recordings, I find that the complete Tallis set from the Chapelle du Roi under Alistair Dixon takes some beating. Their accounts of Salve intemerata and Gaude gloriosa Dei Mater are sung with a good sense of line but with a decent amount of space around the sound. They manage to preserve the clarity of Tallis's textures but give them room to blossom.
The CD booklet includes a long and fascinating article on the historical background to the pieces, the role of Catholic recusants and what fragmentary information we have on their performance practice. There are complete texts and translations.
This disc is an interested experiment, recording Tallis's pieces as if they were vocal chamber music in performances which must echo those of the Elizabethan collectors of his music. This places a great deal on the shoulders of the young singers. Frankly, I think it doesn’t quite comes off. The smaller pieces are well done, but the astonishing bigger pieces need more than they are given here.