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CD reviews

Thomas TALLIS (c1505 - 1585): Sacred music

[I] "Ave, Dei patris filia"
The Cardinall's Musick
Dir: Andrew Carwood
rec: March 3 - 5, 2014, Arundel (West-Sussex), Arundel Castle, Fitzalan Chapel
Hyperion - CDA68095 ( 2015) (71'58")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Ave, Dei patris filia a 5; Candidi facti sunt Nazaret a 5; Christ rising again a 5; Homo quidam fecit coenam a 6; Honor, virtus et potestas a 5; Litany a 5; Preces & Responses I a 5 (O Lord, open thou our lips; The Lord be with you); Psalm Tunes a 4 (E'en like the hunted hind; Expend, O Lord); Short Service a 4 'Dorian' (Venite; Te Deum; Benedictus); ?Thomas TALLIS / ?William PARSONS (fl 1545-1563): Out from the deep a 4

Amy Haworth, Cecilia Osmond, soprano; Patrick Craig, David Gould, alto; Steven Harrold, Julian Stocker, tenor; Robert Evans, Robert Rice, baritone; Robert Macdonald, Simon Whiteley, bass

[II] "Spem in alium"
The Cardinall's Musick
Dir: Andrew Carwood
rec: Nov 9 - 11, 2015, London, St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb
Hyperion - CDA68156 ( 2016) (76'59")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Blessed are those that be undefiled a 5; Hear the voice and prayer a 4; Hodie nobis caelorum rex a 4; In ieiunio et fletu a 5; My soul cleaveth to the dust a 5; O do well unto thy servant a 5; O Lord, in thee is all my trust a 4; O sacrum convivium a 5; Preces & Responses II a 5 (O Lord, open thou our lips; The Lord be with you); Psalm Tunes a 4 (God grant with grace); Purge me, O Lord a 4; Remember not, O Lord God a 4; Short Service a 4 'Dorian' (Magnificat; Nunc dimittis); Sing and glorify a 40 in 8 choirsa; Spem in alium a 40 in 8 choirsa; Verily, verily I say unto you a 4; Wherewithal shall a young man a 5

Molly Alexandera, Emily Atkinsona, Lisa Beckleya, Julie Cooper, Janet Coxwella, Amy Hawortha, Cecilia Osmond, Katie Tretheweya, soprano; Rebecca Outram, mean, contraltoa; Robin Blazea, Patrick Craig, David Gould, David Martina, Matthew Vennera, alto; Katie Schofielda, Caroline Trevora, contralto; Ben Aldena, William Balkwilla, Steven Harrold, Matthew Howarda, Julian Stockera, Nicholas Todd, Ashley Turnella, Simon Wall, tenor; James Arthura, Richard Bannana, Michael Craddocka, Ben Daviesa, Will Dawesa, Robert Evans, Robert Rice, Greg Skidmorea, baritone; James Birchall, Michael Bundya, Edward Grint, Robert Macdonalda, Timothy Murphya, Samuel Pantcheffa, Reuben Thomasa, Stuart Younga, bass


Thomas Tallis is one of the most famous composers of the renaissance and a key figure in English music history. Pieces from his pen regularly appear on disc, but the selection of works from his large oeuvre is probably a little one-sided. One of the reasons could be that a number of them are relatively simple and intended for regular use in the liturgy - for instance the Services - or for domestic performance. The latter goes for the Psalm Tunes. This fact makes it all the more important that his oeuvre is recorded complete. As far as I know the only previous recording pretending to be 'complete', is the one by the Chapelle du Roi, directed by Alistair Dixon (Signum Classics). I write 'complete' between quotation marks, because in the oeuvre of many renaissance composers there are pieces of doubtful authenticity and compositions which have been preserved in various sources which attribute them to different composers. It is up to the performers to decide whether to include them.

I am not familiar with the recording of the Chapelle du Roi and don't know which 'doubtful' pieces are included and which omitted. The two discs which are the subject of this review, include several pieces whose authorship is not established. These discs are the last volumes of a 'complete' recording by The Cardinall's Musick, directed by Andrew Carwood. There is a strong connection between them as they present a wide range of pieces which represent the outer ends of Tallis's oeuvre. The 40-part motet Spem in alium is a brilliant specimen of polyphony rooted in the tradition of music for the Roman Catholic Church, on a Latin text. At the other end of the spectrum we find rather simple settings of texts from the Book of Common Prayer, written for daily services, and the Psalm Tunes I already mentioned above. These are in the vernacular and they were written in such a way that the text is clearly understandable.

When under Henry VIII the separation from the Roman-Catholic took place the religious ceremonies and rituals changed. The elaborate Latin music which was common at the time, was increasingly replaced by music in the vernacular, often technically less demanding and syllabic. This process was intensified under Henry's son Edward VI. When the latter died at the age of 15, he was succeeded by his half-sister Mary. Being Roman Catholic she tried to restore the old Church's dominance, and in the wake of this the Latin liturgy was restored as well. But she only ruled for five years, and after her death in 1558 she was succeeded by her Protestant half-sister Elizabeth. Under her rule the religious balance shifted again, and as a result the Latin liturgy was substituted by a liturgy in the vernacular. The Book of Common Prayer was the symbol of this change.

This course of events left its mark in the compositional output of composers from the mid-16th century, among them Thomas Tallis. This explains the very diverse nature of the pieces included in these two recordings. The title "Spem in alium" refers to one of Tallis's most famous pieces: motets for such a large number of voices were very rare. It is not known for sure why Tallis composed it. However, there are strong indications that it was meant as an 'answer' - so to speak - to a motet by the Italian composer Alessandro Striggio, which is also for 40 voices. This seem plausible as a visit of Striggio to England is documented; he was even received by Queen Elizabeth. According to a contemporary report Striggio's motet was known in England. "Spem in alium, Tallis' masterwork, is simultaneously a tribute to Striggio and a determined effort to upstage him", Robert Hollingworth and Hugh Keyte write in the liner-notes to I Fagiolini's recording of Striggio's Missa Ecco si beato giorno. The disc ends with the same motet, but then on an English text. It is an example of a contrafactum: the substitution of a text by new lyrics. The English text is no translation of the original Latin text. The latter is a Responsory in the Sarum rite set to be sung in response to a reading from the Book of Judith in September. Andrew Carwood, in his liner-notes, mentions several theories about Tallis's choice of 40 voices, partly referring to number symbolism. It must have been considered a monument at the time, and it is remarkable that it was still remembered more than twenty years after the composer's death. The English version, Sing and glorify, was performed in 1610 at the occasion of the investiture of James I's eldest son Henry as Prince of Wales in 1610 and another time in 1613 for Prince Charles. As Carwood points out, with the new English text it "becomes a more celebratory piece and contrasts with the original Latin which is more penitential in nature".

Both Spem in alium and its English-texted counterpart show why one of the liturgical rules of the Church of England was not only the use of the vernacular, but also the importance of greater simplicity. Even when the English lyrics were sung very few in the audience will have understood the text. For most parts the polyphony is too dense and too complicated. This explains why the Services and the anthems are mostly homophonic and syllabic. This allows for a better communication of the text. Some pieces ask for a performance in a reciting manner, not very different from the way plainchant was sung. Examples are Wherewithal shall a young man and O do well unto thy servant, settings of verses from Psalm 119. They are part of the Short Service, also called 'Dorian', which is divided over both discs.

Both volumes also include some of the Nine tunes for Archbishop Parker's Psalter, as they are generally known. This Psalter was a collection of vernacular psalm settings intended for publication in a metrical psalter, compiled for the first Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, Matthew Parker. God grant with grace is a versification of Psalm 67 and is performed separately. In contrast, E'en like the hunted hind (Psalm 42) and Expend, O Lord, my plaint (Psalm 5) are performed at the first disc as part of the Short Service, although - as Carwood states - these Psalms were "almost certainly designed for domestic use (...)". He justifies this decision by adding that "they match well the key and style of the 'Dorian' Service". These Psalms are simple harmonizations and strictly syllabic; as a result the text is perfectly understandable.

The ideal of the Church of England in regard to liturgical music left its mark in some of Tallis's later Latin pieces as well. In ieiunio et fletu which opens the second disc was included in the Cantiones Sacrae, which Tallis and his pupil William Byrd published in 1575. It is syllabic but more complicated than the English church music; in that respect it is a mixture of two traditions.

Ave, Dei patris filia, which gave the first of these two discs its title, is very different. It is a votive antiphon for five voices and rooted in the pre-Reformation tradition of English polyphony as we know it from the Eton Choirbook and composers like Taverner and Fayrfax. The latter name is relevant here: according to Carwood this piece shows strong rsemblance with Fayrfax's setting of the same text. It is an example of a complicated polyphonic fabric, and includes a high upper part, which is a feature of many pieces from the first half of the 16th century and is completely omitted in music for the Anglican liturgy.

With these discs a project has come to an end whose importance can hardly be overrated. I have not heard every volume in this series, but I have enjoyed those which I did hear, among them the present two. Tallis's music never fails to impress, whether it concerns the highly elaborated polyphony in Latin or the more straightforward English pieces. That said, some issues need to be mentioned.

The first is that the ensemble is not always a stylistic unity, for instance with regard to vibrato. Especially in the lower voices I regularly noticed a slight or even somewhat stronger vibrato, that damages the overall sound. It is also noticeable in the pieces which are performed by solo voices. From both a historical point of view and from a musical angle this should have been avoided. But unfortunately this seems to be a feature of many British vocal ensembles for renaissance music. Secondly, as much as one has to appreciate a project like this, there still seems to be room for a recording on a strictly historical basis. That not only concerns the use of vibrato, but also aspects like pronunciation and acoustic. The pronunciation of Latin seems to me more or less traditional. I can't imagine that singers at Tallis's time pronounced Latin the Italian way. A long time ago I heard a concert with a supposedly historical pronunciation, with a strong English accent, which was very different from what he hear here. The same goes for the English pronunciation. In the booklet some texts are printed in old spelling (why not all of them?), but that makes little sense if the pronunciation is modern.

Although I can understand in some way that the Tunes for Archbishop Parker's Psalter are included in a performance of a Service, but from a historical point of view this decision is questionable. If these Psalm tunes were intended for domestic use, they should be performed in more intimate surroundings. The same can probably be said about some Latin pieces. Byrd's sacred works were mostly performed in secret Catholic services, probably rather small venues, and possibly by only a few singers. Could that be the case with some of Tallis's later Latin works as well?

There are also some pieces where Carwood has decided in favour of compromises, which I find hard to understand and which seem to me unnecessary. Hodie nobis caelorum rex is for four voices and printed at a pitch suitable for men's voices. "It is here performed by mixed voices - such a transposition being entirely plausible - as a nod in the direction of the original rubrics and because of the pleasing nature of the combination of voices". Transposition indeed was common practice in the renaissance, but here I can't see any need. And the second reason given here is a non-argument: what sounds well can't count as an argument in historical performance practice. The treatment of the Litany is even more debatable. "[These] include prayers for the Queen's safety but we have omitted the more excessively anti-Catholic invocations to be found in the 1552 Prayer Book. There are many suffrages in a litany and not all of them have been used here but every note of music provided by Tallis is included". This decision seems to me only acceptable, if it is plausible or can be historically documented that Tallis - or other composers - did select elements from the text or gave the performers the freedom to do so. Whether the then used texts are to our liking is completely irrelevant and cannot be used as an argument.

However, these issues should not dissuade any lover of renaissance music from adding these discs to his or her CD collection.

Johan van Veen ( 2017)

Relevant links:

The Cardinall's Musick

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