Cantiones Sacrae 1575

Thomas TALLIS (c.1505-1585)
Salvator mundi I [2:39]
Absterge Domine [3:28]
In manus tuas [1:51]
William BYRD (1643-1623)
Emendemus in melius [3:02]
Libera me Domine et pone [7:14]
Peccantem me quotidie [6:16]
Mihi autem nimis [1:51]
O nata lux [1:41]
O sacrum convivium [3:08]
William BYRD
Aspice Domine quia facta est [4:53]
Attolite portas [4:40]
O lux beata Trinitas [4:08]
Derelinquat impius [3:19]
Dum transisset sabbatum [3:59]
[Honor]virtus et potestas [3:52]
[Sermone blando...] Illæ dum pergunt concite [4:55]
William BYRD
Laudate pueri Dominum [4:02]
Memento homo [2:41]
Siderum rector [2:37]
Te lucis ante terminum [festal setting] [1:59]
Te lucis ante terminum [ferial setting] [1:41]
Salvator mundi II [2:26]
[Candidi]facti sunt [2:02]
William BYRD
Da mihi auxilium [7:04]
Domine secundum actum meum [7:29]
Diliges Dominum [3:08]
In ieiunio et fletu [4:15]
Suscipe quaeso Domine/Si enim iniquitates [7:17]
William BYRD
Miserere mihi Domine [2:29]
Tribue Domine/Te deprecor/Gloria patri qui creavit [10:57]
Libera me Domine de morte [3:59]
Miserere nostri Domine [2:46]
Alamire/David Skinner
rec. February and March 2009 and January 2010, Fitzalan Chapel, Arundel Castle, UK. DDD.
Latin texts and English translations included
OBSIDIAN OBSID-CD706 [74:37 + 55:47]
These recordings, in download format, were enthusiastically welcomed by Brian Wilson only recently. Those collectors who, like me, have not so far dipped their toes in the download waters will be glad to know that a CD alternative is also available.
David Skinner was, with Andrew Carwood, the co-founder of the ensemble The Cardinall’s Musick so his credentials as an expert on and performer of the music of the Renaissance period are well known. This new release seems to me to marry his excellence in scholarship and performance in pretty much equal measure. It is also a notable ‘first’ for this is the first time that the remarkable collection of thirty-four motets by Tallis and Byrd, the Cantiones Sacrae of 1575, has been recorded complete, by the same group of singers and in the original order of publication. As David Skinner explains in a most interesting note, some transposition of individual pieces was necessary in order for the music to work as a sequence. One can dip into this collection to hear individual items but if one listens to a sequence of them one is struck by how cohesive is the collection. 
A key advantage of having all these marvellous pieces gathered together is that the listener can appreciate all the more the compositional skill and the sheer range of expression - and degree of intensity - within the music. I must say that I’ve found it an enthralling experience to listen to these discs and having all thirty-four pieces from the Cantiones Sacrae brought together in one recording does enable one to appreciate the music all the more for hearing it in its intended setting.
In his review of the download Brian Wilson said that he’d read a review elsewhere which, as Brian put it, “accuses this recording of cold perfection.” Now I must admit I haven’t seen the review of which Brian speaks and therefore I haven’t read that reviewer’s opinion in context but I do feel I should reassure our readers that I hear nothing “cold” in these performances. The singing is very accurate and there’s a clear purity in the tone of the female voices but I have no sense whatsoever that the singers are other than completely engaged with the music. The tenors, for example, are not afraid to sing out in an open-throated yet controlled way while the bass line is firm and suitably sonorous at all times. So, for instance, Byrd’s joyful Attolite portas is delivered with vigour and vitality, though not at the expense of clarity in the six-part polyphony. By contrast, the same composer’s Da mihi auxilium is delivered with great intensity. David Skinner sets a measured pace and he and his expert singers see to it that the intricate polyphony unfolds with a seeming inevitability.
Arguably, that piece by Byrd and his Domine secundum actum meum and Diliges Dominum are at the expressive heart of the Cantiones Sacrae and it’s marvellous to be able to enjoy them in sequence. Domine secundum actum meum is, like Da mihi auxilium, an intense, penitential piece and it’s marvellously performed here. The account of Diliges Dominum, the most luxuriantly scored piece in the collection - eight parts - is no less fine. The performance is slow and prayerful and wonderfully controlled. To experience Alamire in a less inward style, however, sample Byrd’s Libera me Domine de morte to which they bring a dramatic fervour.
Tallis is just as well served as is his younger colleague. That exquisite miniature, O nata lux, appears in a flowing and beautifully poised account and I also relished the performance of Dum transisset sabbatum, a beautiful and very private setting. The very last piece in the collection is his seven-voice Miserere nostri Domine. This is yet another intense and prayerful setting. It’s especially moving to hear it as the final item in the programme, I doubt that Tallis and Byrd ever expected - or wanted, perhaps - that their pieces should be performed as a sequence butI found that when one hears Miserere nostri Domine in this context, at the end of the collection, it has an air of ‘finis’.
I’d ask readers to take it on trust that every single item is performed to the same exceptionally high standard - the musicianship of Alamire is remarkable - and the quality of the music itself is consistently superior.
Alamire perform the music with one singer to a part. Twelve singers took part in the project - two sopranos, two female altos, four tenors and two each of baritones and basses. The pieces are mainly in four or five parts though two require seven voices and one is in eight parts. This means some shuffling of the pack of singers - there’s a full list of who sings what in the excellent booklet - but the vocal quality remains constant. It may be invidious to single out individual singers, since all are excellent, but two caught my ear in particular. Bass Robert Macdonald sings in all but one of the pieces and his secure, rich voice anchors the ensemble splendidly. His alto colleague, Clare Wilkinson, goes one better. She sings in every item (as do tenor Christopher Watson and baritone Timothy Whiteley) and she carries the top line in the majority of the pieces. Her pure, accurate and well-focused voice is a constant source of pleasure.
But this is a release that’s about teamwork. All of the singers involved do a splendid job and, though all are vastly experienced consort singers, it’s clear that they have been expertly prepared by David Skinner, whose direction of the music bespeaks not just scholarship and musicianship but also a great love of the music. This release is a significant achievement.
In his notes Dr Skinner describes the acoustic of the recording venue, the Fitzalan Chapel at Arundel Castle, as “sublime”. The recorded sound is wonderful. The resonance and warmth of the acoustic has been captured and used expertly by the engineers and the music comes across with a marvellous clarity. Arundel Castle is a most appropriate venue for this recording because, as the seat of the Dukes of Norfolk, England’s premier Roman Catholic family, it stayed in Catholic hands during the English Reformation of the sixteenth century and has remained so ever since. It’s therefore very likely that at least some of this music has been heard in this very chapel quite regularly in the four centuries since it was composed.
I understand that this set is the inaugural release in a projected series, which is planned to run to some thirty volumes. This will encompass English music from the High Middle Ages to the seventeenth-century Commonwealth. This inspiring recording of the Cantiones Sacrae launches the project in a most auspicious fashion. If future releases maintain this exceptional standard then the series will be a very important one.
John Quinn  

An exceptionally fine complete recording.