Thomas TALLIS (c.1505 Ė 1585)
Spem in alium [8.52]
Lamentations of Jeremiah I [7.35]
Lamentations of Jeremiah II [12.48]
Videte miraculum [10.42]
Dum transisset Sabbatum [7.50]
Honor, virtus et potestas [6.34]
Loquebantur variis linguis [5.04]
Choir of Kingís College, Cambridge/Stephen Cleobury
rec. July 1989, Chapel of Kingís College, Cambridge
NEWTON CLASSICS 8802002 [60.09]

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.

Robert Hugill

An admirable re-issue and if you donít already have a copy, go out and buy it at once