RECORD OF THE MONTH
Renaissance Radio. Sacred Music from the Renaissance Era for Celestial and Secular Radio
The Tallis Scholars/Peter Phillips
rec. Merton College Chapel, Oxford; *Salle Church, Norfolk; ** Temple Church, London; ***Church of St. John, Hackney, London. Published 1986-2013. DDD
Texts and English translations of Latin texts included
Full track-listing at the end of this review
GIMELL CDGIM 212 [75:00 + 76:79]
2013 marks the fortieth anniversary of the foundation of The Tallis Scholars. This milestone will be marked by concerts all over the world, including a special birthday event in St Paul’s Cathedral in March at which music by Byrd and Tallis, including the latter’s Spem in alium. This will be heard alongside some contemporary pieces such as the world premières of commissioned works by Eric Whitacre and Gabriel Jackson (details here). I expect – and hope – that some new recordings will be forthcoming also. In the meantime Gimell has come up with this very clever idea of issuing a set of forty-seven short recordings, mainly from their back catalogue, though I think I’m right in saying that the two Taverner items on disc two are brand new and come from a disc of that composer’s music that is due out later this year. The concept behind this compilation is that whereas forty years ago Renaissance vocal music was seldom heard on the radio that’s no longer the case and this release will be ideally suited to radio presenters who need a “Renaissance snippet”. As such, these discs may well introduce radio listeners to the art of The Tallis Scholars and to the music which they’ve so effectively championed for four decades. For the CD collector this is a splendid compilation set to dip into, though I warn you that if you do so you’re likely to find your ear led on to further tracks.
The selection doesn’t take us right back to the start of the ensemble’s recording history, that famous recording of the Allegri Miserere made when the group had been in existence for six or seven years (review). In fact, the recording of the Allegri that’s included here, in a foreshortened version, is their second account of the piece, which incorporates some embellishments devised by soprano, Deborah Roberts (review). Actually, because verses 7-18 of the piece are omitted, we don’t get to hear much of the embellishments. The recordings included in this present set span a period of some twenty-seven years. During that time the composition of The Tallis Scholars has changed quite a bit – 65 singers are listed in the booklet, quite a few of whom have gone on to have illustrious solo careers. Yet the sound that the group makes has remained remarkably consistent – though it can vary subtly according to which composer’s music is being sung; some differences of approach are appropriate as between, say, Byrd and Victoria. However, the fundamental consistency – and excellence - is a tribute to the fact that Peter Phillips has always known what sound he wants and how to get it.
The recorded sound is also pretty consistent across the set – to my ears, anyway – though the sound of the recordings from St. John’s, Hackney, especially in the Byrd pieces at the end of disc two, is somewhat different to the rest. That, I think, is down to two factors. One is that the group has used very few recording venues: they started off at Merton College; they then recorded largely at Salle for quite a few years, with a few excursions to London, before coming home, as it were, to Merton some years ago. So Peter Phillips and his singers know the acoustics of their venues extremely well. So do the engineers: I don’t know how many separate recording sessions are represented here but only five engineers have been involved, which must also have benefits in terms of consistency.
Disc One is given over to music from continental Europe and many gems have been included. Early on we hear two settings of words from the Song of Songs, one by de Rore and one by Clemens non Papa, both of which are in seven parts. De Rore’s piece is wonderfully poised, though the pulse quickens for the last two lines of text. His music is richly scored, as John Milsom says in his notes. By contrast the music by Clemens non Papa is strikingly pure in texture – as is the sound made by the singers; it’s like the musical equivalent of crystal-clear water. Not long ago The Tallis Scholars released a disc devoted to the music of Jean Mouton (review) and that’s represented here. One might have expected, perhaps, to encounter Mouton’s best-known piece, Nesciens mater, but it’s good that we are offered instead something less familiar in the shape of Salva nos, Domine, a succinct and beautiful piece scored, I think, in six parts. That Mouton disc was the most recent Tallis Scholars recording but I’m glad to find an example from the very first disc by them that I bought, many years ago. The little Praetorius Christmas piece was originally released as part of an anthology of Christmas Carols and Motets (CDGIM 010). It may be available still in that form but it’s also now included on a two-disc set (review) for which this charming little piece may whet your appetite.
Further on in the disc we hear an extract from Brumel’s ‘Earthquake Mass’, with its astonishing 12-part sonorities after which another Agnus Dei, this time by Palestrina, provides an intriguing and telling contrast. The disc concludes with four consecutive pieces by the Iberian master, Victoria, including the magnificent Kyrie from his Requiem and the extraordinarily eloquent yet disciplined Versa est in luctum, surely a prime example of patrician mourning.
Disc Two contains English music and the selection is dominated by the music of Thomas Tallis – fourteen out of twenty-seven tracks. As well as samples from his Lamentations we get to hear O nata lux, one of my favourite Tallis pieces. There’s also Miserere nostri. In a small way this is quite a remarkable piece; it’s a seven-part setting and Tallis’s music takes, in this performance, some two and a half minutes to sing yet he sets a mere four words! There’s also his exquisite If ye love me, another personal favourite, and A new commandment. Why fum’th in fight is one of the Tunes from Archbishop Parker’s Psalter and it will be instantly recognisable as the source for the celebrated Fantasia by Ralph Vaughan Williams.
Moving away from Tallis, there are two pieces by John Taverner. These are brand-new recordings scheduled for release on a Taverner disc later in 2013. That will include a complete account of his superb Missa Gloria tibi Trinitas; for now the Benedictus from that Mass whets our appetite for the full Mass. Robert White’s Christe qui lux es alternates verses in plainchant and polyphony, which I always think is such an effective device. Here there’s wonderful variety in the polyphonic verses even though the piece as a whole is not long. It will be seen that all three settings of John Sheppard’s In manus tuas are included. It’s good to be able to experience these three very different settings in immediate proximity to each other and to hear how Sheppard found fresh inspiration each time he revisited this Responsory for Compline. After Tallis the most represented composer here is William Byrd. The sublime Agnus Dei from his Mass in Four Parts is balanced to perfection by The Tallis Scholars and they are buoyant and vital in his Sing joyfully. In complete contrast with that extrovert Byrd piece the sorrow of Thomas Tomkins’ plangent music in When David heard is movingly conveyed.
There are forty-seven separate tracks here and on each one you will hear singing of the very highest quality. More than that you will experience music-making that’s born out of scholarship and a deep understanding of each composer’s music and how it should be presented; yet the scholarship is lightly worn. Nineteen very different and highly individual composers are represented here and all are expertly served. This pair of CDs is a splendid representation of the art of The Tallis Scholars. If you are familiar with their work the set is a welcome and highly pleasurable way to refresh your memory. If you haven’t sampled much of their recorded output before – or if you’re unfamiliar with the richly rewarding field of Renaissance vocal music – then I hope this set may lead you to many new discoveries; you could not wish for better guides than Peter Phillips and his expert singers.
As usual with Gimell, presentational values are high. This might be regarded as a “sampler” but that doesn’t mean they’ve skimped on the documentation. The very nicely produced booklet includes the full texts and succinct but useful notes on each piece by that authoritative writer, John Milsom. There’s also a reproduction of more of Raphael’s masterpiece, The Sistine Madonna. It’s a detail from that picture that has been chosen for the booklet cover and I must say it made me chuckle. It just invites a caption. What about “Forty years on and the cherubs are still sitting at the feet of The Tallis Scholars”?
Tune in to Renaissance Radio for some wonderful music – and no irritating announcers to get in the way!
Tune in to Renaissance Radio for some wonderful music – and no irritating announcers to get in the way!
CD 1 [75:00]
Gregorio ALLEGRI (1582-1652) Miserere (omitting verses 7-18) [5.50]
Josquin DESPREZ (c1442/3-1521) Ave Maria … virgo serena* [5:27]
Cipriano de RORE (1515/16-1565) Descendi in hortum meum* [5:27]
Jacobus CLEMENS NON PAPA (1510/15–1555/6) Ego flos campi* [4:11]
Jean MOUTON (bef.1459-1522) Salva nos, Domine [2:31]
Orlande de LASSUS (1530/2-1594) Ave regina caelorum* [3:53]
Orlande de LASSUS Salve regina* [3:58]
Hieronymus PRAETORIUS (1560-1629) Joseph lieber, Joseph mein* [2:33]
Josquin DESPREZ Agnus Dei II, from Missa L’homme armé sexti toni* [4:16]
Antoine BRUMEL (c1460-?1512/13) Agnus Dei II, from Missa Et ecce terrae motus* [3:29]
Giovanni Pierluigi da PALESTRINA (1525/6-1594) Agnus Dei II, from Missa Brevis [3:07]
Giovanni Pierluigi da PALESTRINA Sicut lilium inter spinas* [4:45]
Carlo GESUALDO, Prince of Venosa (c1561-1613) Precibus et meritis* [3:03]
Carlo GESUALDO, Prince of Venosa Maria, mater gratiae* [3:43]
Francisco GUERRERO (1528-1599) Ave virgo sanctissima** [3:59]
Tomás Luis de VICTORIA (1548-1611) Ave Maria [4 vv]* [2:17]
Tomás Luis de VICTORIA O vos omnes, from the Tenebrae Responsories*** [2:53]
Tomás Luis de VICTORIA Kyrie, from the Requiem [6 vv]***[2:36]
Tomás Luis de VICTORIA Graduale, from the Requiem [6 vv]*** [3:11]
Tomás Luis de VICTORIA Versa est in luctum*** [3:51]
CD 2 [76:59]
Thomas TALLIS (c.1505-1585) Incipit, from Lamentations I* [1:22]
Thomas TALLIS Aleph, from Lamentations I* [2:39]
Thomas TALLIS Beth, from Lamentations I* [4:49]
Thomas TALLIS Mihi autem nimis* [2:37]
Thomas TALLIS O sacrum convivium* [3:40]
Thomas TALLIS O nata lux* [2:03]
Thomas TALLIS Miserere nostri [2:32]
John TAVERNER (c1490-1545) Leroy Kyrie [3:33]
John TAVERNER Benedictus, from Missa Gloria tibi Trinitas [2:59]
William CORNYSH (fl. c1500) Ave Maria* [3:11]
Robert WHITE (c1538-1574) Christe qui lux es III* [4:55]
John SHEPPARD (c1515-1558) In manus tuas I* [3:29]
John SHEPPARD In manus tuas II* [2:56]
John SHEPPARD In manus tuas III* [2:55]
William BYRD (c1540-1623) Agnus Dei II, from Mass for 4 voices [3:18]
Thomas TALLIS If ye love me [2:04]
Thomas TALLIS Hear the voice and prayer [3:06]
Thomas TALLIS A new commandment [2:42]
Thomas TALLIS Why fum’th in fight [0:58]
Thomas TALLIS Even like the hunted hind [0:53]
Thomas TALLIS God grant we grace [1:04]
Thomas TALLIS Come Holy Ghost [0:41]
Thomas TOMKINS (1572-1656) When David heard* [4:27]
William BYRD Sing joyfully*** [2:48]
William BYRD O God, the proud are risen*** [3:04]
William BYRD O Lord, make thy servant Elizabeth*** [2:52]
William BYRD Nunc dimittis, from the Great Service*** [5:21]
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