Not only is Thomas Tallisís 40 part motet Spem in alium
sui generis, but the lack of any information about its original
performance history means that it stands completely alone, giving
conductors a fairly free rein in re-inventing performance styles.
What little we know about the first performance of the piece
comes from personal recollections set down in 1610, some thirty
years after. The earliest manuscript copies date from 1610 when
the piece was being re-used (as Sing and Glorify) for
the investiture of Prince Henry as Prince of Wales.
Sensibly, on this 1989 recording Stephen Cleobury attempts to
break no new ground, but simply to capitalise on the virtues
of Kingís College Chapel and its choir. The venue provides a
warm, resonant acoustic, giving the piece a continuous background
wash which contributes to the atmosphere of Tallisís music.
After all, attempting to create a more precisely detailed account
of the work would be difficult and rather pointless in such
an acoustic and better left to others. Similarly, Cleobury performs
the work at printed pitch, rather than raising it as some groups
do. Though few choirs attempt to perform it a minor third up
as the Clerkes of Oxenford do.
The performance is poised and relaxed, never feeling rushed
but still succeeds in letting the piece flow along; Cleobury
is not much interested in exploring the workís monumentality,
instead he allows it to be as fleet as it can be without sounding
confused. It is also marvellously unfussy and the music seems
to unfold naturally.
I think it would have been useful to have performed it transposed
up a little: Andrew Parrott moves it up a semi-tone, and Peter
Phillips up a whole tone. As it is, the work sounds a little
bottom-heavy, something not helped by the resonant venue. The
CD liner-notes give no indication of the size of choir used,
but dividing the treble line into five must have been a bit
of a challenge even for a choir as proficient as Kingís. It
is noticeable that, once choirs 1 and 2 have come in, the detail
of the upper line sometimes gets a bit obscured.
I canít say that I have a favourite among performances of this
work. I have enormous regard for the transparency of texture
achieved by the Clerkes of Oxenford under David Wulfstan; their
performance is magical, but few choirs could manage the high
pitch. Of the more recent accounts, that of Alistair Dixon and
the Chapelle du Roi has the virtue of bringing great clarity
and poise to the piece, and they throw in a recording of Sing
and Glorify for good measure!
The expansiveness of Spem in alium is followed by the
calm restraint of the menís voices singing Tallisís two sets
of Lamentations. Beautifully dark toned, well modulated
and richly beautiful, this is intelligent music-making which
allows the music and the acoustic to speak for themselves.
The men are rejoined by the boys for performances of Tallisís
four responsories, for Candlemas, Easter, Pentecost and Trinity.
Each is performed in full, with the requisite plainchant, all
repeats and the Gloria. The result is a quartet of substantial
pieces which speak to me greatly. The four probably date from
the reign of Queen Mary and would undoubtedly have been performed
by an ensemble of men and boys very similar to the Cambridge
one. Here we have history and musicianship joining hands.
I would not want to be without the Chapelle du Roiís complete
Tallis set. They use far fewer singers, with pure-voiced women
on the top line, bringing great clarity to Tallisís music.
This is an admirable re-issue and if you donít already have
a copy, go out and buy it at once.