Sacred Music in the Renaissance – Volume 3
The Tallis Scholars’ Finest Recordings: 2000-2009
CD 1
Philippe VERDELOT (c.1480/5-?1530/32)
Si bona suscepimus [7:09]
Nicolas GOMBERT (c.1495-c.1560)
Magnificat I Primi toni [11:41]; Magnificat II Secundi toni [11:19]; Magnificat III Tertii et octavi toni [12:34]; Magnificat IV Quarti toni [12:21]; Magnificat V Quinti toni [11:13]; Magnificat VI Sexti et primi toni [13:11]
CD 2
Magnificat VII Septimi toni [11:13]; Magnificat VIII Octavi toni [12:56]
John BROWNE (fl. c.1490) Salve Regina I [13:15]; Stabat iuxta [12:24]; Stabat mater [15:56]; O regina mundi clara [13:55]
CD 3
John BROWNE O Maria salvatoris [15:54]
Giovanni Pierluigi da PALESTRINA (1525/6-1594) Stabat mater* [9:52]; Missa Papae Marcelli* [31:52]; Tu es Petrus (6vv) [6:51]
Gregorio ALLEGRI (1582-1652) Miserere* [13:54}
With additional embellishments by Deborah Roberts
CD 4
Josquin Des PREZ (c.1450/55-1521) Missa Malheur me bat* [39:45]; Missa Fortuna desperata* [35:45]
The Tallis Scholars/Peter Phillips
All recordings made between 2000 and 2009 in the Church of St Peter, Salle, Norfolk and *Merton College Chapel, Oxford. DDD
Latin texts with English, French, German translations
GIMELL GIMBX 303 [4 CDs: 79:31 + 79:40 + 78:15 + 75:30]

I’ve become increasingly aware of a problem – but a very pleasant one - as I’ve listened over the last couple of months to the three Gimell collections that celebrate three decades of recordings by The Tallis Scholars. The problem is: how does one, over a fairly short space of time, find a sufficient variety of expression to describe such an amazingly consistent sequence of high-quality performances? Those who have read my reviews of Volume 1 and Volume 2 in this series may appreciate my difficulty. Anyone who has invested in either of the two previous volumes will know exactly what to expect – and is unlikely to need my encouragement to acquire this third and final set.

Disc One

First we hear a short motet, Si bona suscepimus, by the little-known French composer, Philippe Verdelot. He is a neglected figure but this five-part motet is a lovely piece and it’s done wonderfully well here.

It may seem strange to devote so much of this set to eight settings of the same text by one composer. However, once the decision had been taken to include Nicolas Gombert’s Magnificat settings there was probably little option but to go for broke and present the full complement. Their inclusion is fully justified on account of the quality of the music itself but I’m sure the reason that all eight have been included is that, as Peter Phillips observes in his notes, these “form an anthology of everything [Gombert] was capable of.” So to break them up and offer, say, just a couple here, would militate against the integrity of the original project to record the complete set. And as Steve Smith made clear when I interviewed him and Peter Phillips earlier this year, it was never the intention merely to present a “Best of The Tallis Scholars” collection. These Gombert Magnificat settings were released in two volumes in 2001 and 2002. I remember reviewing the second volume very enthusiastically. My colleague John Phillips reviewed the first volume and was equally complimentary but I’m ashamed to say that disc eluded me at the time so I’m very glad to be able to hear the whole array now. For detailed comments I’d refer readers to the earlier reviews.

For the original release each Magnificat was accompanied by a plainchant antiphon, each proper to a particular feast. Those antiphons are omitted here. I regret that slightly but it was an inevitable, pragmatic decision because to include them would have added well over twenty minutes of music and something had to give. No one should think that just because these settings are all of the same text and by the same composer they are lacking in variety. On the contrary, while Gombert follows the same alternatim approach each time the polyphonic passages are endlessly varied – and frequently quite dramatic. There’s also variety in the number of voice parts employed. These pieces are resourceful and full of interest and the strongly projected performances are splendid.

Disc Two

The Gombert pieces spill over onto this disc but the majority of the space here is allotted to the Englishman, John Browne. In this collection we have the entire contents of The Tallis Scholars’ 2005 disc devoted to Browne’s music. I see that John France opened his review with the words “This CD is one of those few productions that leave me speechless”. He was referring to the quality of both the music and of the performances and I can understand why he was so impressed. In some ways it seems to me that Browne stands at the gate between late medieval music and the full flowering of Renaissance polyphony in England. Thus there are times when the textures of his music are lean and spare; then, almost without warning, the music expands into rich polyphony.

All these pieces are taken from the Eton Choir Book and each, in its different way, is remarkable. Salve Regina I, for example, features the long, winding melodic lines that are such a feature of Browne’s music. The lines appear to go on forever; indeed, in this performance it seems as if the first paragraph goes on without interruption until 4:39. The scoring of that piece is relatively modest; it’s only in five parts (TrMATB). The remainder are much more luxuriantly laid out. The most remarkable in terms of scoring and colour is Stabat iuxta. The six parts (TTTTBB) encompass a fairly narrow vocal range – less than two octaves, I believe – and the colouring of Browne’s music is rather dark in hue. In fact when all the parts are engaged the textures are somewhat dense. I don’t mean that as a criticism either of the composer or of the performers, who project the music powerfully.

By contrast the magisterial O Maria salvatoris lays more emphasis on high voices (TrMAATTBB). The opening is truly arresting, consisting of an extended, richly scored phrase sung by the full choir. This music is quite thrilling but almost immediately we find that Browne has pared his forces down just to two intertwining lines. This contrast of texture is one of the features that make Browne’s writing so fascinating. The whole piece is a tremendous achievement but, then, so are its four companions in this collection. One is left admiring the skill of men like Browne who could compose such elaborate music. And one admires in equal measure the skill of these twenty-first century performers who bring it all so vividly to life.

Disc Three

Much of the music on this disc takes us back to the start of the Gimell story: the Palestrina Mass and Allegri’s Miserere were included on the very first Gimell disc – though it was then issued by Classics for Pleasure. Those early recordings are still performances to be reckoned with (review) and the 1980 recording of the Allegri took its rightful place in Volume I of this 30th anniversary retrospective. So why duplicate the work in Volume III? Well, what we have here might be described as the same, but different. Based on their experience of performing the Miserere some 350 times Peter Phillips and his team have rethought their approach to it in two significant ways. The first concerns the plainchant sections. In the original recording – and, I think, in every performance I’ve ever heard of the work down the years – these sections were sung to Tone 2 and usually, as in the Tallis Scholars’ 1980 recording, by a small group of men. Phillips tells us that over time he and his colleagues noticed that the higher of Allegri’s two soprano parts mimics Tonus Pelegrinus and so on this recording we hear the chant sections sung by a single cantor – Andrew Carwood, no less – who sings the words to Tonus Pelegrinus.

The second change is that soprano Deborah Roberts, who sings the top line in the distant semi-chorus has, over the years, embellished the part, top Cs and all, and this recording preserves her improvisatory decorations – or perhaps I should say the embellishments she delivered on that day, since by definition there’s an element of spontaneity about what she does. Very helpfully, the notations for each of the five embellishments are printed in the booklet. Thus this recorded performance is full of interest and, naturally, the singing is superb. I must say, however, that I retain a very marginal preference for the recorded sound on the old 1980 recording. The latest version, issued in 2007, is a fine achievement technically but on my equipment at least there seems to be just a touch more space round the voices of the main choir and I rather like that. Admirers of The Tallis Scholars will certainly welcome this newer recording if they don’t already own it but the 1980 version is by no means displaced.

The Palestrina Mass occupies an important place in the history of The Tallis Scholars. It featured on the aforementioned first Gimell disc and it was also part of the programme with which Peter Phillips and his singers celebrated the 400th anniversary of the composer’s death with performances in the Sistine Chapel and in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in 1994 (review). The present performance is a later one, issued in 2007, and, like the 1980 recording, it was made in Merton College Chapel. It’s quite outstanding. There’s an abundance of grace and purity in this music and The Tallis Scholars bring out all of it in a performance of consummate skill. I nearly wrote “effortless” but that would be unfair. Peter Phillips writes in his notes that “in [Palestrina’s] music there is no hiding place. The sonorities are so clear, the logic of the writing so compelling, that one sound out of place is immediately detectable.” To be able to produce a performance of this wonderful mass setting of such high quality as this present one bespeaks a tremendous amount of preparation and concentration by all concerned. Everything here is beautifully proportioned and balanced. This is a reading born out of long association and familiarity with the music yet it all sounds so fresh. The serene ‘Sanctus’ and the jubilant ‘pleni sunt caeli’, epitomise the refinement of both the music and the recorded performance.

Disc Four

It’s fitting that this whole three-volume survey concludes with a pair of Masses by Josquin. After all, it was with a Josquin disc that The Tallis Scholars carried off the Gramophone’s Record of the Year in 1987 [CDGIM 009]. That was the first time that an Early Music recording had won that award and it remained the only time that such a recording had won this coveted prize until this year when Andrew Carwood and The Cardinall’s Musick repeated the feat. And now The Tallis Scholars are engaged on a project to record all Josquin’s masses. The pair included here are among their most recent offerings and the music and performances are described in detail in the reviews by Brian Wilson and Mark Sealey. I’ll content myself with saying that both of these recordings are in the finest traditions of the Gimell house. Josquin’s often intricate and closely argued polyphony is delivered with an exemplary clarity – sample, for instance, the Credo of Missa Fortuna desperate. These two recordings confirm that Phillips and The Tallis Scholars continue to be powerful and effective advocates for Josquin’s music.

As I hope I’ve made clear, the third volume in this celebratory series is as fine as its predecessors. There’s an abundance of magnificent music to be heard in the five hours or so that it will take you to play these CDs. As to the performances, well, the excellence is so consistent that one almost takes it for granted. But the scrupulous scholarship that lies behind all these recordings, as well as the hours of painstaking preparation, is cause not only for admiration but also for celebration.

In common with the other two sets the documentation accompanying these discs is of the highest quality. The booklets are beautifully illustrated and Peter Phillips provides extensive and highly readable notes that mingle scholarship and enthusiasm in equal measure. I think it’s worth quoting the concluding paragraph from his introductory essay that’s common to all three sets:

The advantage of being a commercially successful independent company is that we can afford to spend time and money on stalking the kind of perfection that makes this music come alive today. The aesthetic thrill of finding it, when one does, can be very special indeed. Such a reward is very different from the adrenalin of conducting a concert; but in 50 discs (and 30 years making them) I have never tired of the search. And there is more to come.”

I’d say that the twelve CDs contained in this survey – including those in the present volume – demonstrate triumphantly how often Phillips has successfully stalked his quarry of perfection over the years. This has been a wonderful celebration of thirty years of dedicated and highly skilled recording and the many admirers of The Tallis Scholars will note with pleasure Peter Phillips’ final comment: “there is more to come”. Happy thirtieth birthday, Gimell. Here’s to the next decade!

John Quinn

The final instalment in a wonderful celebration of thirty years of dedicated and highly skilled recording by The Tallis Scholars and Gimell Records.