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Hyperion Records

GIMSE403 - English Madrigals
Portrait of a girl (probably Venetia Stanley, later Lady Digby) by Peter Oliver (c1594-1647)
Victoria & Albert Museum, London / Bridgeman Art Library, London
GIMSE403

Recording details: Various dates
Various recording venues
Produced by Steve C Smith & Peter Phillips
Engineered by Various engineers
Release date: September 2007
Total duration: 72 minutes 41 seconds

English Madrigals
Bonus tracks

This unique album, the only recording by The Tallis Scholars of English Madrigals and their first-ever digital recording, was made in the Great Hall at Deene Park, Northamptonshire, on April 23rd, 24th and 25th, 1982. There are also 7 bonus tracks featuring English Anthems by Thomas Tomkins recorded in Salle Church, Norfolk, on July 18th, 19th and 20th, 1988.


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In 1980 The Tallis Scholars made a record of music by Allegri, Palestrina and William Mundy for the black-vinyl budget label Classics for Pleasure (it's now available in this budget-priced series as GIMSE 401). It sold so well that we were asked to make a follow-up, with the stipulation that the repertoire should be as popular as on the first disc. This didn’t give me much scope within what was known of sacred polyphony in those days so that, out of a number of suggestions, it was finally decided to record secular music. The madrigals which follow were duly recorded in the Great Hall of Deene Park, Northamptonshire, in April 1982. This was the first and only time we have ever recorded such repertoire; and the issuing of this album marks the first time these tracks have been commercially available for over twenty years.

When we made this recording no one was in any doubt as to the quality of the music. My subsequent hesitations in programming secular items in concert have been entirely to do with the sound-world which they require: one voice to a part with the interpretative attention focused on the words and not in the first instance on the group sound, which is what The Tallis Scholars have subsequently specialized in. For this recording we placed the singers in a large room which had little reverberance, where they could hear each other clearly and so react to the way each was using the words to expressive ends, yet the singers in question were experienced in choral work and knew instinctively how to fit their voices into a group. The result, as was said at the time of its release, was a recording which tried to bridge the gap between vocal ensembles which specialized in madrigal singing and a fully choral approach. I am struck now by how legitimate that approach was. Obviously it is most successful in items which have a quasi-sacred message, like Morley’s Hark! Alleluia or Tomkins’ Woe is me (which interestingly we recorded some years later as a sacred piece and include here in the bonus tracks that follow the madrigals); but it works as well in the lighter numbers, like Bennet’s All creatures now. Do I regret not having done more of this repertoire in the intervening years? I would, if there hadn’t been so much first-rate sacred music to explore.

The twelve madrigals presented here were deliberately chosen to show off the scope of the best English madrigal-writing around the year 1600. My own penchant was for the more contemplative items, with their longer lines and more plangent part-writing: Wilbye’s Draw on sweet night; Gibbons’s Ah dear heart and The silver swan; Ramsey’s Sleep, fleshly birth; and the Tomkins mentioned above. At the other end of the spectrum are the so-called balletts and canzonets, sometimes sporting characteristic ‘fa la las’: Weelkes’s Hark, all ye lovely saints; Bennet’s All creatures now; Farnaby’s Carters, now cast down; Vautor’s anguished but not at all churchy Cruel Madame; and Byrd’s Though Amaryllis dance offering a more musically intricate contribution to the pastoral tradition. (The cross rhythms in this piece so excited E H Fellowes that he likened them to Brahms’s compositional style.) In between, and most original of all in many ways, are the two pieces by Thomas Morley: Hark! Alleluia, which comes as close to representing the music of the spheres as any piece I know; and Phyllis, I fain would die now, a dialogue between Phyllis (sung by three women in ballett-style) and Amintas, her lover (sung by four men in sacred polyphonic style). Only at the end do all the seven voices sing together.

The closest The Tallis Scholars normally come to singing madrigals in concert is in the anthems of the early Stuart composers: Tomkins, Weelkes and Gibbons in particular. In 1988 The Tallis Scholars made a recording of Anglican music by Thomas Tomkins, who, by choosing texts which had obvious opportunities for word-painting, was as adept as anybody at marrying sacred with secular style. In fact in one or two cases in Tomkins’ output – Woe is me and When David heard among them – the same piece is to be found both in a published collection of madrigals (the set of 1622) and in the anthology called Musica Deo Sacra, of sacred music, which Thomas’s son Nathaniel published after his father’s death in 1668. These pieces have become known as ‘sacred madrigals’ (they might as well have been called ‘secular anthems’), a title which encouraged me eventually to record Woe is me in both formats. The listener can decide which he or she prefers: the long lines and sustained dissonances suggest choral textures, while the intimacy of the complaint goes well on solo voices.

But madrigalian touches are never far from the surface of Tomkins’ church music: O God, the proud are risen against me uses its eight voices to build up an unforgettable wall of complaint in the opening passage; while Almighty God, the fountain of all wisdom spends several minutes sounding like the most staid Anglican service setting in the repertoire until without warning, just before the Amen, all hell seems to break loose. Whether you call the dissonant harmony and whole-tone phrases which follow madrigalian or just experimental, they seem to take Tomkins’ music out of the Renaissance period altogether.

Peter Phillips © 2007

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