Earlier this year I interviewed
Peter Phillips and Steve Smith for MusicWeb International to mark
the thirtieth anniversary of Gimell Records. During our conversation
they mentioned that as part of the anniversary celebrations Gimell
would issue three four-disc sets, each containing a representative
selection of recordings by the Tallis Scholars from one of the
three decades of the label’s existence. Here now is the first
of those sets. It covers Gimell’s first decade.
When we talked, Steve pointed out the challenges of choosing the
programmes for these sets. He made it clear that the intention
was to do much more than stick together a random selection of
“best bits”. One particular comment was telling, I thought, and
bears repetition. “Some things have to go in because they’re an
important part of the story. And other things go in because they’re
my favourites, actually. But then, of course, you can’t just throw
it all in the pot. It’s got to work as a sequence.”
So, in evaluating this set I started with disc one, track one
and I worked my way through to the end. It proved to be a most
stimulating and satisfying journey. I wonder how many hours of
thought have gone into the selection of the five hours or so of
music contained here. A good many, I suspect. Some of the inclusions
are fairly predictable. The Allegri Miserere
, for example,
earns its place by right – though this isn’t an inclusion for
sentimental reasons - the superb performance more than justifies
the choice. Again, there had
to be music by the composer
after whom the group is named and it’s right and proper that Spem
should be one of the pieces by which Thomas Tallis
is represented. However, on an all-Tallis disc I rejoice to find
another magnificent, ambitious composition, Gaude gloriosa
I wasn’t surprised to find that the music by Clemens non Papa
and Crecquillon had made it onto the shortlist since, as part
of the interview, Steve nominated that disc as his ‘Desert Island’
choice among all the Gimell recordings. Equally unsurprising was
the inclusion of a Josquin Mass from the disc that famously won
the ‘Gramophone’ Record of the Year award in 1987. However, it’s
perhaps a slight surprise to find that the Missa La sol fa
has been chosen over its more celebrated companion on
that disc, Missa Pange Lingua
. But I for one am glad to
find such a touch of unpredictability. All in all, I’d say the
programming of this set is a triumphant success.
These recordings will be well known to many collectors. So on
one level they require little comment. However, this set – and
its two projected companions – will offer those unfamiliar with
the work and repertoire of The Tallis Scholars an ideal and inexpensive
entrée into their world. Thus a few comments on each disc are
appropriate. But I’ll preface my comments with a general statement
that the standard of performance throughout these discs is uniformly
magnificent. There wasn’t a single instance when I felt that tuning,
balance or blend were anything less than ideal. Everything about
these performances just seems right
. Yet no one should
think that these discs demonstrate nothing more than clinical
perfection. There’s a real sense of atmosphere and commitment
about these performances and listening to these performances is
frequently an exciting experience.
The celebrated recording of the Allegri Miserere really marks the start of the Gimell story so there could be no other way to open this collection. The music is beautifully laid out both by Peter Phillips and by the skill and imagination of Bob Auger, who engineered the recording. Peter and Steve discuss how the distancing effects were achieved in the second part of my interview with them.
William Byrd rightly takes his place in this collection. The Tallis Scholars recorded all three of his Masses and any of those recordings would have made a fine choice but, on balance, I’m glad the Mass in Five Parts was selected for it’s the most ambitious of the three. The performance is beautifully nuanced and expertly crafted yet nothing sounds studied. I draw attention especially to the ‘Credo’, in which the section beginning at “Qui propter nos homines” is very expressive, especially from “Crucifixus” onwards. The ‘Sanctus’ is noteworthy for the sense of timelessness that Peter Phillips and his singers impart.
The 1603 setting of the Requiem by Victoria is richly scored for SSATTB choir. The Tallis Scholars bring a wonderful sense of space and inevitability to this music. What impresses me most about this performance is the controlled intensity of the singing. This is heard, for example, at the words “Exaudi orationem meam” in the ‘Introit’ and at “de poenis inferni, et de profundo lacu” in the ‘Offertorium’. By comparison with some Renaissance composers Victoria’s music may be somewhat austere but these musicians bring out the colour, vigour and drama in this marvellous Requiem setting.
It’s appropriate that Thomas Tallis should be allotted a whole disc to himself. The 1985 recording of Spem in alium is a spectacular one. When I discussed this recording with Peter and Steve in Merton College Chapel, where it was made, I was amazed to learn that all the singers had been positioned together in one large group. I have always thought that this recording is exceptionally successful in terms of achieving great clarity and differentiation between the eight choirs and I had assumed that the choirs had been physically separated: but not so. That, I think, reflects tremendous credit on the skills of Peter Phillips and his forty singers. Twenty-five years on, this recording is one of the best, indeed arguably the best recording of this amazingly inventive work that I’ve heard.
But in my view the Marian anthem Gaude gloriosa is as great an achievement. True, Tallis wrote this piece for smaller forces – there are never more than a ‘mere’ six parts at any one point! However, as Peter Phillips writes in his notes, “unlike Spem it is colossal in length rather than height.” Tallis sustains his music invention and argument over some seventeen minutes and the listener’s ear is constantly led on. It’s an astonishing compositional tour de force and the virtuoso part writing is superbly delivered here.
The other pieces are more modest in scale but no less fine in terms of musical quality. The exuberant writing (SSAATBB) of the Pentecost text, Loquebantur variis linguis, is exuberantly dispatched. On the other hand, the exquisite miniature, If ye love me, receives a lovely performance that struck me as being perfect in scale. A new commandment is not, perhaps, as celebrated a piece as If ye love me but I think it’s just as fine and this performance is winning. The contents of the disc have been well chosen to give us an excellent mixture of Tallis’s Latin and English (Protestant) church music.
The four-part Josquin Mass was included on the disc that won the Gramophone Record of the Year award in 1987. That was the first time a recording from the Early Music category had triumphed in those awards and, astonishingly, that remains the case to this day, I believe. That in itself highlights the scale of the achievement of The Tallis Scholars in winning this award, not least because in order to do so they had to impress a jury of professional critics, most of whom were not specialists in the field. I suspect that what grabbed the jurors’ attention was the astonishing beauty and control of the singing. Just as an example, listen to the “Et incarnatus est” section of the ‘Credo’ (track 3, from 3:00), which is serenely beautiful. Josquin’s music and the way in which it is delivered here convey a sense of awe at this point. On the other hand, in the concluding pages of the ‘Credo’ the music really dances; there’s a splendid vitality and a rhythmic energy in the performance at this point. The ‘Agnus Dei’ shows us The Tallis Scholars at their best. In this movement there’s singing that’s controlled, dedicated and expertly balanced, all of which combines to produce music-making that moves the listener through its sheer beauty. Peter Phillips explains in his notes the technical mastery that lies behind this composition and it’s right that we should be made aware of this. However, the singers make you forget Josquin’s technical accomplishment and enable you to focus instead on the devotional beauty of his music.
Staying in the Low Countries we hear music by Jacob Clemens. This is very beautiful music and although Clemens’ style is conservative in nature his writing is most assured, as we witness in the long polyphonic lines at “Christe eleison” in the ‘Kyrie’ of his Mass setting. This was a work I’d not heard before but I enjoyed it very much and the exemplary nature of the performance helped. Anyone who thinks that Renaissance polyphony is dull should sample the last three minutes or so of the ‘Gloria’, which offers real exuberance. The ‘Sanctus’ is majestic, followed by buoyant writing at “Hosanna in excelsis.”
Since the CD was first issued in 1987 new research has established that the motet Pater peccavi is not by Clemens but by his Flemish contemporary, Thomas Crecquillon. This is a superb piece, setting the words addressed by the returning Prodigal Son to his father. The vocal writing is very rich and it is performed wonderfully well. For me this was a major discovery in the set.
John Sheppard’s Media vita is one of the towering masterpieces of Tudor polyphony. In Peter Phillips’ judgement it is “unrivalled for its breadth of phrase and expressive power.” Suffice it to say that the performance by The Tallis Scholars is simply glorious. Above all I relished the intensity of their singing – for example at the words “qui pro peccatis nostris iuste irasceris”. Indeed, I think that this particular performance is the most powerful one in the whole set. Sheppard’s invention sustains nearly twenty-two minutes of music and I found this particular account of it gripped my attention from start to finish.
From William Cornysh we hear an extraordinary setting of Salve regina. Quite a lot of the writing in this piece is florid and celebratory and the decorative style must be very hard to bring off. The present performance is phenomenally assured. Cornysh was Master of the Children of the Chapel Royal at the court of King Henry VIII from 1509 until his death in 1523. Thus he was responsible for training the boy choristers and that may well account for the long passages in this piece where the very demanding treble line lies very high. You almost get the feeling that Cornysh is indulging in some musical exhibitionism, delighting in showing not just what he can do as a composer but also what his boy choristers can do thanks to his tutelage. Even in the more reflective passages the piece calls for virtuosity and interpretative maturity and that’s precisely what The Tallis Scholars deliver.
There could scarcely be a greater contrast than that between the flamboyance of Cornysh and the restrained beauty of Palestrina. In a typically intelligent piece of programme planning we hear firstly the plainchant antiphon ‘Assumpta est Maria’ followed by Palestrina’s fine, celebratory motet based on that chant and finally the Mass setting that he also based on it. In the motet I loved the sense of wonder at the words “Quae est ista”. The music in the Mass setting has fairly bright sound because Palestrina stressed high voices in his scoring (SSATTB). His optimistic and seemingly effortless music is unfolded expertly in this performance, which is a delight from start to finish. In this Mass setting, as they have done time and again throughout this set, The Tallis Scholars exhibit excellence of blend and tuning and also the immaculate clarity they bring to the part-writing.
I think you’ll be in no doubt from my comments that the four discs in this box contain a treasure trove of wonderful music in performances that are consistently outstanding in their quality. However, those are not the only reasons why this set is so attractive. The recorded sound is excellent throughout. Working usually in venues with which Peter Phillips and his singers were familiar, the various engineers have been highly skilful and imaginative in reporting the singers very naturally and in using the acoustics to enhance the singing – the buildings actually contribute to the music-making, one feels. The presentation is handsome too. Each disc is contained in a separate cardboard slip-case that has on one side a track-listing and on the other a contemporary photograph of the artists. There are no less that four booklets. One contains the texts with English, German and French translations. Another, in English, contains an introductory essay by Peter Phillips, which will be common to all three volumes, his detailed notes on all the music and some more contemporary photographs. Separate booklets contain French and German translations of those notes but English readers shouldn’t overlook the other two booklets, for each of them contains different photographs. Frankly, I’d rate production values of this standard as very strong for a full priced release: for a budget priced set they’re lavish!
For those collectors who already own a good number of these recordings the box may offer the chance to plug gaps in your collection fairly inexpensively. For those who have not yet experienced The Tallis Scholars this magnificent set offers an ideal opportunity to rectify that omission. But whether you approach this set as a convinced admirer of The Tallis Scholars or as a newcomer it represents an outstandingly generous thirtieth birthday present from Gimell Records to us. The remaining two volumes will be released in a few weeks time and I shall report on those very shortly.