On 3 November 1973 a group of eleven undergraduates - ten singers and one conductor - assembled in the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Oxford to sing a programme of polyphonic music by Obrecht, Ockeghem, Lassus and Victoria. That was the first concert by the group that was to become known, though not until 1976, as The Tallis Scholars under their founder director, Peter Phillips. Since then the group has gone on to give over 1800 concerts all over the world, of which Peter Phillips has missed a mere ten. They are celebrating their fortieth anniversary with a world tour and with this brand new recording of John Taverner’s great Missa Gloria tibi Trinitas
. The story of the group is told in Peter Phillips’ fascinating and eminently readable book, What we really do
, a second edition of which has recently been published (review
It would be hard to imagine a more suitable piece than Taverner’s Mass to feature on a disc marking such an important milestone in the group’s history for it represents one of the most glorious flowerings of Tudor Polyphony. Indeed, in his booklet note Peter Phillips states that it “counts as one of the greatest pieces of music ever to have been written in England”, comparing it to such great achievements as the operas of Britten, the symphonies of Elgar or the anthems of Purcell. Heard in a performance such as this exceptionally fine one it’s hard to disagree with him or accuse him of exaggeration. This is not the first recording of the Mass that The Tallis Scholars have made. In fact it was included on one of their earliest Gimell discs (CDGIM004
), a 1984 recording that also contained Taverner’s ‘Leroy’ Kyrie
and Dum transisset Sabbatum.
I’ve not heard that disc so I came fresh to this performance, except that I did hear and enjoy the radio broadcast of the late-night BBC Prom on 14 August 2013 at which The Tallis Scholars sang the Mass.
Missa Gloria tibi Trinitas
may well have been written during the time that Taverner was Master of the Choristers at Cardinal College, Oxford (1526-30), the college founded by Thomas Cardinal Wolsey and which was renamed Christ Church after Wolsey’s fall from grace in 1529. It was composed on a grand scale, as can be seen from the fact that here it takes just over forty minutes to perform, even though there is no setting of the Kyrie. At the Prom Peter Phillips prefaced the Mass with the ‘Leroy’ Kyrie
and in a sense it’s a pity there wasn’t room for that on this disc but its inclusion would have made it impossible to fit in all three of the Magnificats.
The Mass is for six-part choir (TrMAATB). In his notes Peter Phillips emphasises how challenging it is to perform on account of the tessitura, especially in the wide-ranging alto parts and in the unremittingly high treble line. Also the music requires the ability to sustain - vocally and interpretatively - exceptionally long phrases. This music, I think, is a prime example that vindicates Peter Phillips consistent stance with polyphony, which he performs almost invariably with two voices to a part, not least so that the singers can stagger the breathing without breaking the line. It was noticeable that when they performed the work at the Proms motets by Gesualdo were interspersed between some of the Mass movements, presumably to give the singers a modest respite from Taverner’s demands. Of course, when sung liturgically the physical and intellectual demands of the music are less of an issue because the movements are not sung consecutively. Nonetheless I couldn’t help feeling while listening that the singers of Taverner’s day may well have quietly hoped for a lengthy Gospel and homily during the service so as to give them a good breather between the singing of the Gloria and the Credo.
The Mass setting is founded on a plainchant, ‘Gloria tibi Trinitas’, the opening phrase of which is reproduced inside the CD liner tray. However, for the most part the listener has to be sharp of ear to detect the chant since Taverner uses it as the basis for some extraordinarily virtuosic polyphonic invention. The writing is frequently flamboyant, nowhere more so than in the wonderful Gloria. For the first section (to 5:51) the textures are very full and busy. I thought of describing the music as treble-dominated but that might suggest, unfairly, that the treble line is too prominent in this performance: treble-crowned
would be a better description. The ‘Qui tollis’ section which follows is more reflective but The Tallis Scholars don’t relax the intensity. The urgency in the music soon picks up again and in the final moments (from 10:36) Taverner’s music is truly spectacular - as is the present performance. The Credo is similarly absorbing. One passage that caught my attention in particular is at ‘Et in uunu Dominum’ (from 1:16) where the inner voices fall silent and the trebles trace ever more elaborate and high-lying lines with just a bass line, which in itself is unpredictable in nature, for support. This movement, like the Gloria, has an exciting and virtuoso conclusion.
After the majestic, expansive Sanctus comes the Benedictus. A feature of this movement is the beautiful music, extending to 56 bars, to which Taverner sets the words ‘In nomine Domine’. This section clearly caught the imagination of other composers for several used it subsequently as the basis for ‘In nomine’ compositions. The Agnus Dei is spacious, serene and richly scored and The Tallis Scholars sing it as superbly as they have sung the preceding movements of the Mass.
The three settings of the Magnificat were probably not composed as a set but it’s good and most interesting to hear them in sequence. Each of them alternates passages of polyphony with sections in which the words are sung to chant. The four-part setting (AATB) is the shortest and most succinct of the three. The five-part setting is for SATTB while the six-part Magnificat has the same scoring (TrMAATB) as the Mass. This latter setting contains rich, almost hyperactive passages when all six parts are involved, though at times Taverner thins out the textures most effectively by reducing the number of vocal lines to two or three. The treble line is high-lying, though perhaps not so dauntingly as in the Mass. In the concluding section of the doxology - ‘Sicut erat in principio’ - Taverner’s music is particularly lively and flamboyant and The Tallis Scholars sing it with exuberance.
This is an exceptionally fine disc. The music itself is compellingly interesting and Peter Phillips and his marvellously disciplined singers bring the music to life in a most exciting way, This is virtuoso music and The Tallis Scholars are equal to every challenge posed by the composer. One is left in awe that Taverner wrote music so full of teeming invention and technical skill, yet it all sounds so inevitable
- at least, it does when sung with the skill and assurance of The Tallis Scholars. The presentational side of the production is up to Gimell’s usual immaculate standards. Engineer Philip Hobbs, a regular collaborator with the ensemble, has captured the performances in splendid sound which is clear and reports the natural resonance of Merton College Chapel extremely well. As usual, Peter Phillips’ notes are scholarly yet lively and eminently readable.
This is a fitting recording with which to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of this remarkable ensemble. Peter Phillips and the singers who have worked with him over the last four decades have made an incalculable contribution to the upsurge in interest in Renaissance polyphony in that time - though, as he makes clear in the aforementioned book their work has often been anything but plain sailing. The recorded legacy of The Tallis Scholars is already rich and full but one hopes there is much more to come in the future. So, in congratulating the group on forty years of dedicated music-making it’s also appropriate to say ad multos annos