“Sacred Music in the Renaissance, Vol. 1: The Tallis Scholars Finest Recordings, 1980–1989” – The Tallis Scholars /Peter Phillips – Gimell GIMBX 301 (4 discs), TT: 5 hrs., 14 mins. [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] *****:
I have to confess that as much as I admire and enjoy listening to Renaissance choral music, I’ve never gotten into collecting recordings—certainly not with the avidity of amassing different versions of, say, Beethoven’s Ninth. I’m sure that serious students of Renaissance polyphony will find enough differences in performance practice and recording technique to justify multiple versions. For the rest of us, a one-stop-shopping approach may not be such a bad idea. In the case of the Tallis Scholars’ surveys (I see that Volume III has just been released), collecting in this way is a capital idea. These are recordings that won universal critical acclaim when they first appeared, including a Gramophone Recording of the Year award for the Josquin Missa La sol fa re mi. And in the intervening years, Tallis Scholars’ recordings have been supplemented by those of other groups but not superseded because they represent such a high order of scholarship and skillful execution.
The present collection brings together some of the greatest masterworks of the period along with a few works by less-familiar composers such as Sheppard and Cornysch. While John Sheppard is considered one of the finest English musicians of his era, he’s been overshadowed by Thomas Tallis because of his essential conservatism, compared to Tallis’ compositional daring. Sheppard’s responsories written for the Christmas and Lenten season represent some of his finest and most characteristic music, including Media vita, which may be his masterpiece.
William Cornysch the Younger was an actor and dramatist as well as composer. As Master of the Children of the Chapel Royal, he supplied both the words and music for royal entertainments such as masques and pageants. It’s not clear whether the Salve regina and Gaude virgo mater Christi are by him or his father, William Cornysch the Elder; the works appear in the Eton Choirbook, compiled near the end of the fifteenth century, and so could be by either. (The Elder died around 1502; the Younger in 1523). In any event, they’re sublimely lovely examples of English Renaissance music.
Along with this less-often-encountered music (which includes Thomas Crecquillon’s Pater peccavi), we have works that are considered the pinnacle of Renaissance polyphony: the Allegri Misere, the Victoria Requiem, Tallis’ Spem in alium, and the Josquin, Byrd, and Palestrina masses. Even for the less studious listener, it’s not hard to understand why Palestrina is considered the Catholic composer; a capella polyphonic writing achieves its most gorgeously rarefied form in his masses and other works. But the most staggering achievement represented here is Spem in alium by the Tallis Scholars’ namesake. If you’re not familiar with this work, do hear it in some version or other. As Peter Phillips writes of this music in his detailed notes, “So outstanding is Spem in alium that it still seems impossible that one mind without a computer could have managed it. To write forty voices which do not repeat themselves in consecutive motion and not to lose control of the whole colossal edifice, is to set a challenge which even the Art of the Fugue scarcely rivals.” A bold claim, but then hearing is believing!I compared the Tallis Scholars’ version with that of Harry Christophers leading the Sixteen on an SACD disc from Coro. The older recording can’t match the SACD in terms of transparency and the illusion of depth, but as far as the performances are concerned, there’s really nothing to choose. Both are first rate—not surprising, since many of the same singers are employed in the two performances.
The Gimell recordings, covering the period 1980 to 1989, were set down at the Chapel of Merton College, Oxford, and the Salle Church in Norfolk, both of which venues supply just the right ambiance without clouding or treble stridency. All recordings except the Allegri Misere are digital, but despite the number of years covered by this project, there’s little if any variation in the basic excellence of the sound. These discs represent a great bargain and are just about the best way I know to sample the rich legacy of Renaissance sacred music.
Disc 1: Gregorio Allegri: Miserere; William Byrd: Mass for five voices; Ave verum corpus; Tomás Luis de Victoria: Requiem; Versa est in luctum
Disc 2: Thomas Tallis: Spem in alium; Sancte Deus; Salvator mundi, salva nos I; Salvator mundi, salva nos II; Gaude gloriosa; Miserere nostri; Loquebantur variis linguis; If ye love me; Hear the voice and prayer; A new commandment; O Lord, give thy holy spirit; Verily, verily I say unto you; Remember not, O Lord God; Christ rising again; O Lord, in thee is all my trust; Tunes for Archbishop Parker’s Psalter; Purge me, O Lord; Blessed are those that be undefiled
Disc 3: Josquin Des Prez: Missa La sol fa re mi; Jacob Clemens non Papa: Missa Pastores quidnam vidistis; Tribulationes civitatum; Thomas Crecquillon: Pater peccavi; Clemens non Papa: Ego flos campi
Disc 4: John Sheppard: Media vita; William Cornysh: Salve regina; Gaude virgo mater Christi; Plainchant Assumpta est Maria; Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina: Assumpta est Maria; Missa Assumpta est Maria
— Lee Passarella