It’s a remarkable paradox that in an age of decreasing conventional religious belief the polyphonic sacred choral music of the sixteenth century should be the subject of so many recordings. Well-established groups such as The Tallis Scholars and The Sixteen already have an impressive discography of this music and more recently they have been challenged by younger performers such as The Cardinall’s Musick. The new recording rivals the best of those available: it’s Hyperion’s Recording of the Month for March 2014 and it’s mine, too. You can sample the 'Agnus Dei' from the Missa Puer natus est on Hyperion’s free sampler for the month, HYP201403.
Andrew Carwood and his team have made eight recordings for Hyperion to date, including the completion of their series of the music of William Byrd, started for ASV and completed for Hyperion. Before doing so, they had already also made two recordings of the music of Byrd’s teacher and friend, Thomas Tallis: CDA67548 (Gaude gloriosa and other sacred music) and CDA67994 (Salve intemerata and other sacred music).
With this third volume they are almost a third of the way to equalling the achievement of Chapelle du Roi and Alistair Dixon, whose 10-disc set of all Tallis’s extant works has set a daunting standard (Brilliant Classics 94268, with a 2-CD distillation on Regis RRC1394 (Bargain of the Month) and individual CDs still available from Signum). The download of the whole set which I mentioned last year from AmazonUK has now increased in price to £9.29, but that’s still excellent value, so that you could afford to have that and pick and choose supplementary recordings from The Cardinall’s Musick and the other fine versions which I’ve listed for comparison …
The opening work on the new recording, Salvator mundi, Domine, from Compline, shows polyphony arising from the plainsong opening like an organic growth. It’s important that the transition should seem like moving from one world to another, yet appear to be seamless, and this The Cardinall’s Musick achieve to perfection. The scene is set for another CD to match the high quality of its two predecessors.
The central work on the new CD, the Christmas-tide Mass, Puer natus est nobis, has been more recorded than any Tallis composition except the 40-part Spem in alium. Here, too, plainsong figures, this time as the cantus firmus, the music on which the polyphonic structure is founded. The music almost certainly dates from the brief reign of Queen Mary; Andrew Carwood refuses to speculate further, but it may well allude to one of the queen’s phantom pregnancies. Though the cantus firmus comes from the Third Mass of Christmas, its text—Unto us a boy is born—might well have been chosen as an expression of hope that Mary would have an heir and thus assure the continuation of England’s return to the papal fold with the assurance that Tallis could continue to compose music for the Roman liturgy. No-one was to know at the time that the accession of the moderate Protestant Elizabeth would herald an equally golden age for Tallis.
To help us to appreciate how Tallis builds the Mass on the plainsong, The Cardinall’s Musick sing it first. Don’t worry if you lose the thread—just enjoy the music for the wonder that it is. In common with most Tudor settings, the Kyries are omitted—they would have been sung in plainsong or to a separate setting such as Taverner’s Kyrie Leroy—and only a fragment of the Credo exists, omitted here, as it is on the other recordings.
The Cardinall’s Musick take all sections of the Mass at a fair pace—faster than The Sixteen, except in the Sanctus —but so do Peter Phillips and The Tallis Scholars, whom I normally credit with giving the music of this period time to breathe. Nowhere did I get the impression that Carwood or Phillips was rushing the music. Alistair Dixon on Signum also adopts fast tempi (SIGCD003 or complete set). By contrast Harry Christophers’ Gloria is almost half as long again as Dixon’s but both extremes of tempo, on Signum and Coro work well, proving yet again that speed is far from the only issue.
Dixon places the Mass in a liturgical context by prefacing the Gloria with the plainsong introit, as on the new recording, and a farced or elaborated Kyrie, such as are found in the Sarum Missal, and he places a plainsong Gradual, Alleluia and Sequence between the Gloria and Sanctus. If you push me hard I would have to state a preference for the Signum recording, largely because of the way the music is this placed in context.
Audivi vocem, a respond for All Saints' Day, and Videte miraculum, for Candlemas, have also been much recorded. Both feature on a Decca twofer in elderly performances from Cambridge, the former from King’s under David Willcocks, the latter from St John’s, both well regarded in their time but the Willcocks in particular sounds slow and dated now. More recent recordings are broadly in agreement about a faster tempo for Audivi vocem, as on Volume 5 of the Signum set (SIGCD016) and Andrew Parrott.
The English setting of the Benedictus is a little masterpiece, despite Tallis’s having to conform to the new simpler style required for English settings. It provides quite a contrast with the much earlier 4-part Magnificat, which alternates chant and polyphony. As with Audivi vocem, I’ve listed comparative recordings for the latter by The Tallis Scholars and Chapelle du Roi, both superb, but the new recording is their equal.
The recording, made as before in the appropriate acoustic of Arundel Castle, is as good as on the earlier volumes, with individual strands of polyphony well differentiated but integrated within the whole sound-picture. I listened to the 24-bit download from Hyperion, which is excellent, and sampled the mp3, which is also very good of its kind. The CD and the CD-quality 16-bit downloads fall between the two and should also give great pleasure.
The quality of the booklet can always be taken for granted with Hyperion. Andrew Carwood’s notes set the background to Tallis’s music in the confused religious context of the 1550s very well. He fails to explain, however, just when the English setting of the Benedictus was composed, assuming that it was to be sung at ‘the Morning Office of Mattins in Cranmer’s new Prayer Book’ without saying which version of that book. In fact it must have been the first Prayer Book of 1549, as the text was changed in 1552 and subsequent editions: the ‘horn of saluacyon’ of 1549 as in Tallis’s text had become ‘a mightie saluacioun’ by 1552, thus dating this setting with accuracy between those two dates.
What Carwood does well is to show how Tallis achieved his task of conforming to Archbishop Cranmer’s insistence on a plainer style of music—as far as possible one note per syllable—and yet produce a minor masterpiece. Tallis’s pupil, William Byrd, would go on to do this even better in his Great Service, but one wonders if he would have been able to do so without the example of the older master.
Don’t overlook Hyperion’s other Tallis offerings. If you are looking to hear Tallis’s music sung not by a modern mixed-gender ensemble but by a cathedral choir, as it would originally have been, there’s a very inexpensive recording of the Missa Salve intemerata by Winchester Cathedral Choir directed by David Hill on budget-price Hyperion Helios CDH55400—download for £4.99 or order the CD for £5.50 from Hyperion. Neither that nor their earlier recording of Spem in alium and other works (mid-price CDA30024) duplicates anything on the new recording.
The first volume of this series ended briefly in Hyperion’s ‘Please, someone, buy me …’ bargain basement, having failed to sell well. It didn’t deserve to be there and nor does this new recording. There was quite a gap between The Cardinall’s Musick’s first Tallis CD and the second but the third has followed hard on the heels of the latter. I look forward to hearing their next instalment with anticipation. Meanwhile snap up this new recording and its two predecessors if you don’t already have them.