In March 1980 The Tallis Scholars made their very first recording
for the Gimell label, a celebrated programme that included Allegri’s
‘Miserere’ (see review).
Since then the Gimell label has issued a steady stream of acclaimed
recordings by the ensemble and the Gimell story is one of consistent
success and artistic excellence. (See anniversary interview
with Peter Phillips and Steve Smith, the founders of the label).
This new CD, which is timed to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary
of that first recording, also happens to be the fiftieth new
recording on the label.
Superficially, one might have looked for such an anniversary
release to consist of music that is more obviously celebratory
in tone. However, though the music recorded here is solemn in
nature the disc can be said very fairly to be a celebration
of the core virtues both of the label and of The Tallis Scholars,
as exhibited in so many previous recording from this source.
Thus the quality of the performances is absolutely excellent.
Furthermore, though there’s nothing remotely stuffy or academic
about the music making, the performances are clearly rooted
in very sound scholarship. Then there’s also the extremely good
recorded sound to consider and the high calibre of the documentation.
In short, this CD is fully up to the long-established traditions
of the Gimell house.
The three days leading up to Easter Sunday – Maundy Thursday,
Good Friday and Holy Saturday – have always been days of special
significance in the Christian church. In the Roman Catholic
tradition these three days – the Triduum – are marked by liturgies
of special solemnity during which the Passion and Death of Christ
are marked and contemplated prior to the celebration of the
Resurrection. Naturally, much of the liturgical observance during
these days is meditative in nature.
Nowhere was observance of the solemnity of the Triduum more
marked than in Counter Reformation Spain and the music recorded
here is suitably intense and thoughtful. Victoria composed this
music to be sung at the office of Matins on each of the three
days. As Peter Phillips points out in his very interesting notes,
in the music here recorded Victoria set the scriptural readings,
all from the Lamentations of Jeremiah, that were prescribed
for the first Nocturn at Matins. Each of these lessons would
have been followed by a sung Responsory. Victoria composed settings
of the Responsories of the Second and Third Nocturns (recorded
by The Tallis Scholars on CDGIM 022), but not for the preceding
lessons, whereas for the first Nocturn he set the lessons but
not the Responsories.
The Lamentations are recorded here in an edition by Jon Dixon.
There are three for each of the three days and every one ends
with the poignant phrase ‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem, convertere ad
Dominum Deus tuum’ (‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem, turn to the Lord
your God’). These phrases bring a musical and literary unity
to the music, though it’s very important to remember that originally
they would not have all been heard together. However, I think
there’s a very strong case for hearing them as a sequence. Indeed,
as I listened it struck me that in these pieces we almost get
something of a microcosm of the Triduum, even if the texts themselves,
which significantly pre-date the birth of Christ, make no direct
reference to the events of Holy Week.
Victoria’s music is wonderfully intense, very affecting and
expressive. It’s also extremely beautiful. Peter Phillips and
his gifted singers perform them outstandingly well, realising
marvellously what Phillips refers to as the “plangent austerity”
of the music. As one listens everything sounds so natural and
inevitable as Victoria’s long phrases unfold. Technique such
as this is the result of what must have been painstaking preparation
yet the performances never sound at all studied.
I was interested to read that Peter Phillips had encouraged
his singers to put more intensity into the main body of the
text of each Lamentation than into the ‘Jerusalem’ phrases.
They certainly respond with the intensity that he sought. For
example, they impart great tension to the passage in the second
Maundy Thursday Lamentation that begins with the words ‘Et egressus
est a filia Sion omnis decor eius’ (‘The daughter of Sion has
lost all her beauty’).
Later on, sample the depth of feeling in the singing of the
words ‘Ego vir videns paupertatem meum’ (‘I am the man who has
seen affliction’), which occur in the third Good Friday Lamentation.
The third and last Lamentation for Holy Saturday is a little
different in that the text is an overt prayer. This is the longest
of the nine pieces and it’s a heartfelt supplication by the
prophet. The Tallis Scholars reserve some of their most fervent
singing for this piece and it’s as moving as anything you’ll
hear on the disc.
In addition to Victoria’s music we’re offered the Maundy Thursday
Lamentations by Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla. He is an interesting
character, one of a host of Iberian musicians who journeyed
to Latin America in the sixteenth- and seventeenth centuries
to assist in the evangelisation of the New World through the
provision of liturgical music in the many churches and cathedrals
built by the conquistadors. It’s not known exactly when
Padilla emigrated but by October 1622 he was cantor and assistant
Master of the Music at the cathedral in Puebla, Mexico and seven
years later be was promoted to the post of Maestro de Capilla
at the cathedral, a post that he held until his death.
Padilla’s Lamentations, which are scored for six voices (SSATTB),
are performed in an edition by Bruno Turner. I don’t think that
Padilla quite matches the intensity of Victoria’s settings but
the music is still very impressive indeed and once again it’s
performed with The Tallis Scholars’ fine mixture of finesse
and commitment. I noted in particular the very powerful singing
of the passage beginning at ‘facta est quasi vidua domina gentium’
(‘the queen of nations has become as a widow’). Later on, at
the words ‘Migravit Judas propter afflictionem’ (‘Judah has
departed because of torment’) Peter Phillips moves the music
forward with significant purpose and there’s real bite in the
singing. Throughout the whole set of Lamentations he and his
expert singers serve Padilla’s music very well indeed.
For these performances The Tallis Scholars consists of twelve
singers, four to each voice, with the alto line shared between
two male and two female singers. Throughout the whole programme
the standard of singing is of the very highest order. Tuning,
blend and ensemble are immaculate. The voices are balanced impeccably
and the diction is admirably clear. Furthermore, the recorded
sound that engineer Philip Hobbs has produced is really lovely
and pleasingly atmospheric. He has managed to convey an aural
image that is at once spacious yet intimate, giving a very clear
and present sonic image of the singers.
As I indicated earlier, this CD is in the best traditions of
the house. It is, in short, an outstanding release that celebrates
the thirtieth anniversary of Gimell in the most distinguished