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Thomas TALLIS & William BYRD: Cantiones Sacrae 1575

Alamire
Dir: David Skinner

rec: Feb & March 2009, Jan 2010, Arundel Castle (Fitzalan Chapel)
Obsidian - CD706 (2 CDs) ( 2011) (2.10'24")

William BYRD (c1535/40-1623): Aspice Domine quia facta est a 6; Attolite portas a 6; Da mihi auxilium a 6; Diliges Dominum a 8; Domine secundum actum meum a 6; Emendemus in melius a 5; Laudate pueri Dominum a 6; Libera me Domine de morte a 5; Libera me Domine et pone a 5; Memento homo a 6; Miserere mihi Domine a 6; O lux beata Trinitas a 6; Peccantem me quotidie a 5; Siderum rector a 5; Tribue Domine - Te deprecor - Gloria patri qui creavit a 6; Thomas TALLIS (c1500-1585): Absterge Domine a 5; Candidi facti sunt a 5; Derelinquat impius a 5; Dum transisset Sabbatum a 5; Honor virtus et potestas a 5; In ieiunio et fletu a 5; In manus tuas a 5; Mihi autem nimis a 5; Miserere nostri Domine a 7; O nata lux a 5; O sacrum convivium a 5; Salvator mundi a 5 (I); Salvator mundi a 5 (II); Sermone blando - Illae dum pergunt concite a 5; Suscipe quaeso Domine - Si enim iniquitates a 7; Te lucis ante terminum a 5 (I); Te lucis ante terminum a 5 (II)

Grace Davidson, Julia Doyle, soprano; Ruth Massey, Clare Wilkinson, contralto; Mark Dobell, Nicholas Mulroy, Nicholas Todd, Christopher Watson, tenor; Gregory Skidmore, Timothy Whiteley, baritone; William Gaunt, Robert Mccdonald, bass

The printing of the Cantiones Sacrae by Thomas Tallis and William Byrd 1575 is a milestone in the history of English music in that it was the first major publication of religious music in England. It was the fruit of Tallis and Byrd receiving a patent for the printing of music and ruled music paper for 21 years. It may be considered remarkable that these two composers, who had remained faithful to their Catholic conviction, were able to act as composers and even given such a patent in a country where Protestantism had become dominant. Even more remarkable is the fact that Tallis and Byrd dedicated the collection to Queen Elizabeth, the symbol of protestant rule in England. But at the time of printing the conflict between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism hadn't escalated yet as they would since the late 1570s. It was only during the 1570s and in particular in the 1580s that Byrd openly associated with recusants and his position became increasingly problematic. Tallis is generally considered a pragmatist who avoided religious controversy.

The year the collection was printed was the 17th anniversary of Elizabeth's accession, and this was symbolized by the fact that both composers contributed 17 motets to the collection. In order to reach that number the figures had to be manipulated, though. Tallis' two settings of Te lucis ante terminum were counted as one, whereas the sections of two motets were counted as two and three respectively. The texts of the motets are dogmatically 'neutral', so to speak. Some are verses from the Bible, like Mihi autem nimis by Tallis (Psalm 138, vs 17) and Da mihi auxilium by Byrd (Psalm 107, vs 13). Many texts are from the Catholic liturgy: Honor virtus et potestas by Tallis is the Matins Respond for Trinity Sunday and Domine secundum actum meum the Eighth Respond at Matins of the Dead. But Protestants couldn't take offence at any of those texts either. Not a single text in the collection refers to, for instance, the veneration of the Virgin Mary or of any saints.

This can also explain why Queen Elizabeth accepted the dedication, and these motets were probably sung in the Chapel Royal. It is known that she liked liturgy in Latin. But the printing indicates that they were written for a wider clientage. In his liner-notes David Skinner writes: "The largest market for the publication would doubtless have been cultured and wealthy Elizabethans, although the works may well have been performed in many different contexts, from the Chapel Royal or Oxbridge Chapels (where Latin was allowed) to private chamber performances in musically literate households. Performing forces could therefore have ranged from professional singing men and boys, to amateur male and female voices, to a consort of viols or any such combinations".

In this recording the motets whose scoring ranges from five to eight voices, are performed with one voice per part. It is not quite clear what kind of historical context this recording embodies. The Chapel Royal and 'Oxbridge' chapels were probably a bit larger than Alamire in this recording. So do we have here an example of the use of these motets in a private household? In that case the acoustics should have been more intimate. And one also wonders whether in that case the addition of plainchant which in some motets is only indicated - like in the two settings of Te lucis ante terminum - is justified. In this respect one may consider this recording a little inconsistent as well. "No liturgical plainchant is provided in the Cantiones, so a singer in 1575 would have had to rely on a good memory stretching back to Mary's Catholic reign or have access to the liturgical sources (which would not have been practical in this period in English history). The three respond (Dum transisset, Honor virtus and Candidi facti sunt) have therefore been performed as 'motets', and as printed in the Cantiones, but with the necessary incipits provided at the start with presumably would have been known to the singers".

Skinner raises one further issue regarding performance practice, and that concerns pitch. He mentions the fact that there was no pitch standard. "Deploying singers with typical ranges for five vocal timbres of soprano, contralto, tenor, baritone and bass, and presenting the Cantiones in the order that Tallis and Byrd intended, we were faced with a number of practical considerations concerning the performing pitch for each motet, as well as how one motet would lead into another when played consecutively on a CD". If one would be overly critical one could argue that the pitch problem is self-imposed. The motets were never meant to be performed at a stretch, and therefore the problem of pitch is in fact non-existent. I wonder how many listeners would experience the connection between the various motets as a problem, if played consecutively and if no transposition would have taken place. As far as the former aspect is concerned: if a performance with the 'conventional' voice types is causing problems, then why should one adapt the music? Wouldn't it be more logical to use the voices most suited to the repertoire? From a historical point of view that is certainly the case. These considerations don't mean to imply that transposition as such is unhistorical. But whereas for a live performance with a variety of repertoire this seems a logical step to take, for a studio recording - which always has a mainly documentary goal - I can't see any need for transposition.

Having said that I hasten to emphasize that this recording is very good. Surprisingly this is the first time the Cantiones Sacrae have been recorded in their entirety. That in itself makes this project worthwhile. The singing is excellent throughout, with a great amount of transparency and a perfect balance between the voices. The upper voice doesn't dominate as in so many other recordings of renaissance polyphony. The lower voices have enough vibrancy to make themselves heard, and none of the voices has a wobble. Only in some items one of the tenors tends to be a bit sharp. Otherwise the voices blend beautifully. In some alternatim pieces the plainchant is sung by the upper voice, which seems questionable (Sermone blando angelus). In the two settings of Te lucis ante terminum the text of the plainchant stanzas is different from the text as printed in the booklet. Lastly, the miking has been very close, and one is well advised to turn down the volume control, in particular when listening with headphones.

The booklet contains liner-notes by David Skinner, a list with the transpositions as well as all the lyrics with English translations. This set is the first volume in an ambitious series of about 30 called "a Library of English Music from the High Middle Ages to the Commonwealth". If this volume is an indication of what is to come there is every reason to look out for the next volumes.

Johan van Veen ( 2011)

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