BARGAIN OF THE MONTH
Sacred Music in the Renaissance -Volume 2
The Tallis Scholars Finest Recordings 1990-1999
Antoine BRUMEL (c.1460-c1520) Missa Et ecce terrae motus [47:09]
Heinrich ISAAC (c.1450-1517) Missa de Apostolis [29:00]
Jacob OBRECHT (1457/8-1505) Missa Maria zart [69:18]
Heinrich ISAAC Tota Pulchra es [9:05]
Alfonso FERRABOSCO the Elder (1542/3-1588) Lamentations I [10:00]
Thomas TALLIS (c.1505-1585) Lamentations I [8:48]
Lamentations II [13:15]
Antoine BRUMEL Lamentations [9:06]
Robert WHITE (c.1538-1574) Lamentations (5vv) [21:56]
Giovanni Pierluigi da PALESTRINA (1525/6-1594) Lamentations for Holy Saturday (Lesson 3, 6vv) [9:46]
Cipriano de RORE (c.1515/16-1565) Descendi in hortum meum [5:36]
Cipriano de RORE Missa Praeter rerum seriem [30:02]
Manuel CARDOSO (c.1566-1650) Requiem [47:20]
The Tallis Scholars/Peter Phillips
rec. 1990-1999, Church of St Peter, Salle, Norfolk. DDD
Latin texts and English, French, German translations included
GIMELL GIMBX 302 [4 CDs: 76:10 + 78:23 + 78:31 + 77:23]
This second instalment of Gimell’s thirtieth anniversary celebrations contains less English music than the first volume, which I reviewed only a few weeks ago. In this latest volume we find an even more generous representation of Franco-Flemish and Iberian composers. That may be just coincidence but I suspect it reflects the ever-expanding repertoire horizons of The Tallis Scholars as the years passed - remember, these three boxes form a chronological survey covering three decades.
Though there may be changes in the composers represented in this latest retrospective as compared with the first volume, the quality of the music and the ultra-high standard of the performances are just as impressive as was the case first time round.
The set opens with Brumel’s extraordinary Mass in twelve parts, the so-called ‘Earthquake’ Mass. There are three parts for each voice - with two voices to a part on this recording, so twenty-four singers are involved - although here two of the alto lines are given to high tenors. Sonically, the music is as remarkable as Tallis’s celebrated Spem in alium, even if it doesn’t have as many independent parts. Opportunities to hear the piece are probably quite limited - Peter Phillips comments that The Tallis Scholars haven’t performed it in concert since 1995. It’s a fantastic achievement. In his notes Phillips refers to the “teeming detail of the rhythmic patterns” and he also observes that Brumel needed to write in so many parts “to decorate his colossal harmonic pillars”. If those phrases suggest a magnificent piece of musical architecture then that’s exactly what we get in this Mass setting.
It’s a most imposing and exciting piece of polyphony and in this superb Tallis Scholars performance it’s revealed in all its splendour. Let me just draw attention to a few particularly ear-catching moments. The end of the ‘Gloria’ is an exuberant piece of writing. But that’s topped by the closing pages of the ‘Credo’, where the vocal parts seem to tumble over each other in a thrilling cascade of sound. By contrast, the ‘Sanctus’ is imposingly devotional. Here Brumel’s music is impressively slow-moving. However, when he gets to “Pleni sunt coeli” it really does sound as if the heavens are full.
The Missa de Apostolis of Heinrich Isaac is more modest in scale - for a start it’s only written in six parts (SSATBB). But it’s a wonderful piece by a composer who Peter Phillips describes as “one of the greatest masters of what might be called vocal orchestration”. The Mass is based on a number of plainchant melodies used at the liturgies of the Feast of the Apostles. The listener is struck by the loveliness of Isaac’s melodic lines, which are often quite extended. Phillips rightly draws attention to the melody that Isaac uses for “Gratias agimus“ in the ‘Gloria’ (Track 7, from 1:47). This Mass is a very beautiful and resourceful composition and I admired greatly the glorious performance that it receives here.
Obrecht’s Missa Maria zart (‘Mass for Gentle Mary’) is an extremely substantial work, lasting nearly seventy minutes in this performance, and it’s scored for STTB. Indeed, it may well be the longest polyphonic Mass setting ever composed. This work was one that I haven’t heard before and the strong enthusiasm that Peter Phillips expresses in his notes made me keen to hear it. I hate to say it but, having done so I’m a little ambivalent about it. It may be heretical to say so but I wish it was about fifteen minutes shorter. Obrecht develops his musical ideas at what one might call, in a different context, Brucknerian length. The trouble is, to my ears - which are far less expert than those of Peter Phillips - the music seems too extended.
Phillips remarks on the homogeneity of the music and perhaps that’s the trouble. Phillips says that in the past he was criticised in certain quarters for taking the music too slowly. I don’t think that’s the problem; I’m sure his spacious treatment is right. In the last analysis, however, unlike, say, the Isaac Mass, this was music that I could admire but it didn’t excite me. However, that’s a very subjective reaction. I may come to feel more positively about the piece in time and I’m sure other listeners will feel differently about it. In any event, the quality of this performance makes the best possible case for the work
The disc is completed by another piece by Isaac, his Tota Pulchra es. This motet is sung by male voices (ATBarB) and it’s lovely. Though the words are from the often highly-charged Song of Songs, Isaac sets them with dignified restraint. The plangent alto line is particularly pleasing in this performance. This timeless little gem is one of the most affecting pieces in the entire collection
Here we have six settings by five different composers of verses from the Lamentations of the Prophet Jeremiah. It’s fascinating to be able readily to compare and contrast the different responses to these words by Italian, English and Franco-Flemish composers - though none of them set identical verses. The music by Ferrabosco (SATTB) is disciplined yet fervent while the settings by Tallis, which are easily the best known, achieve great eloquence and are here given one of the finest performances that I can recall hearing.
The Brumel (ATTB) was new to me. This is music of the dusky twilight. Peter Phillips says of it that Brumel builds up “a rare mood of desolation by low scoring and slow harmonic movement”. By contrast, the Palestrina setting stresses higher voices (SSATTB), though there is no less solemnity in the music as a result. The Robert White piece, which is the most extensive because it’s really two pieces sung consecutively, again emphasises the higher voices (SSATB) and as a result the sound is brighter and more plangent. Phillips describes the White Lamentations as “consummate pieces of vocal architecture” to which I’d add that the music is really intense and sorrowful.
The previous disc concluded with a lovely motet (SSAATTB) by Cipriano de Rore. His Descendi in hortum meum takes words from the Song of Songs and the prominence that Rore gives to high voices accords his music a light, airy texture that’s most seductive.
The main offering by this Flemish composer is his Missa Praeter rerum seriem. Scored for SSATTBB, the Mass is based on a Christmas motet by Josquin. This is rich music, yet the inclusion of two soprano and two tenor parts means that the textures are generally bright. The opening of the ‘Gloria’ is compelling. The music is complex - and full of vitality in this performance. Here, as throughout the four discs, Phillips and his gifted singers ensure that all the lines are laid out with great clarity.
The ‘Sanctus’ is spacious and impressive. Interestingly, for the “Pleni sunt coeli” Rore, instead of using extravagant part-writing to suggest the heavenly host, restricts his scoring to a mere two solo voices - tenor and bass. This means that when the whole consort is deployed at “Hosanna” the exuberance and richness of the music is all the more apparent. Rore similarly fines down his scoring for the ‘Benedictus’, where just three soloists (SST) are used. This emphasises the intimacy of the music before the full forces return for the “Hosanna”.
To close the set we hear the earliest recording in the box, dating from 1990. The Requiem by the Portuguese composer, Manuel Cardoso is a serene and very beautiful composition, which shows traces of Victoria’s influence. It’s written in six parts (SSAATB) and the purity of the soprano lines throughout this glowing performance is especially winning. A mood of calm devotion pervades the first movement, the Introit, and that proves to be the hallmark of the entire work. However, though the music is consistently beautiful and very consoling this performance isn’t just about beauty. Cardoso’s music has an emotional charge to it as well, even if it’s relatively restrained, and that comes out in this exceptionally dedicated and controlled performance.
At the start of this review I referred to the ultra-high standard of execution. The technical skill on display throughout this set is remarkable. And when one reflects that here we have twelve separate recordings, set down variously between 1990 and 1998 the sheer consistency is little short of amazing. Furthermore, though the singing is never less than beautiful and always superbly controlled these aren’t pale and merely technically efficient readings. At all times one feels that Peter Phillips and the Tallis Scholars have a profound understanding and love for this music and they communicate the spirit of the music and the visions of the various composers most effectively and persuasively.
All the recordings were made in theChurch of St Peter, Salle, Norfolk, which was the Tallis Scholars’ recording home throughout the 1990s. Only three engineers were responsible for all the recordings included here, Mike Clements, Mike Hatch and Philip Hobbs, and the evenness of the results surely reflects how much those three engineers and all the artists were in tune with not only the music but also the church building. The sound throughout is beautifully clear and with just the right amount of resonance and ambience.
Once again Gimell have excelled themselves in terms of documentation, providing booklets in English, French and German, all of which are copiously illustrated. This box is a worthy successor to the first volume and represents an astonishing bargain. I shall be reporting on the third and final instalment of this handsome thirtieth birthday celebration very soon.
An astonishing bargain.