John Quinn
MusicWeb International
March 2015

The fourth volume of Andrew Carwood’s survey of Thomas Tallis’s vocal music includes two substantial works: the Marian piece Ave, rosa sine spinis and the Mass for four voices.

In his notes Andrew Carwood advances a persuasive thesis that Ave, rosa sine spinis is a fairly early work and that one guide to this is the conservative elements in the composition. I’m sure he’s right but it’s still an impressive piece and Tallis displays the confidence to handle a lengthy text and a long musical span. The passages in which the full vocal ensemble (SATBarB) is deployed have a satisfying, rich sound, though that’s a tribute to the singers as well as to Tallis.

The Mass setting, Carwood argues, shows that at the time of its composition the ideas of the Reformation were starting to gain ground and cast an influence. Here Tallis eschews a treble line—the scoring is ATBarB—and he also avoids the flamboyant decorative writing that one associated with many pieces of English polyphony that date from the turn of the sixteenth century. As a consequence this music lacks long, soaring melismatic treble lines though the ‘restriction’ to lower voices imparts a richness of hue to much of the writing. The Gloria and Credo are succinct with emphasis placed on the clarity and impact with which the words could be heard by listeners. Carwood says that Tallis allowed himself a little more compositional freedom in the remaining movements of the Mass but, in all honesty, this freedom is relative. Much of the Sanctus is reverent, though the ‘Hosanna’ strikes a celebratory tone. The Benedictus is solemn, even austere with, again, a more extrovert ambience at the ‘Hosanna’. The Agnus Dei, too, is solemn and prayerful. The very restraint of this Mass is impressive in itself and the performance is very fine indeed.

Three of the pieces that have English texts are contrafactum settings of music to which Tallis had already set Latin words. Wipe away my sins is the contrafactum of Absterge Domine while Blessed be thy name was originally Mihi autem. Those two Latin pieces can both be found in Volume I of this series. In a way I regret that the English and Latin versions weren’t included on the same disc. The third contrafactum piece, however, can be heard in both iterations. When Jesus went into Simon the Pharisee’s house is the English version of Salvator mundi II. It’s good that the two versions haven’t been placed immediately adjacent to each other on the programme. Nonetheless it’s interesting occasionally to programme the CD so that you can compare and contrast. For all Tallis’s skill you do get the feeling from time to time that the English words don’t always fit entirely comfortably to music which had been designed to be sung to a Latin text.

There are three Compline pieces. We hear two different versions of Te lucis ante terminum, each based on a different plainchant melody. In between them comes In manus tuas, Domine. Carwood includes two of the nine tunes that Tallis composed to fit psalms in Archbishop Matthew Parker’s English translations of the Psalms (1567). The tune for Psalm 2, Why fum’th in fight was later immortalised by Vaughan Williams in his ‘Tallis’ Fantasia. Here it’s presented with verse one sung by a solo baritone after which the remaining verses are harmonised—and those verses show just how very much Tallis’s harmonies add to the melody. At the end of the Psalm Archbishop Parker added a prayer and this Collect is sung by the solo baritone. I don’t recall hearing this done before in this fashion but it’s a good touch. The other Parker psalm tune is presented in the same way.

This is another very fine disc from Andrew Carwood and The Cardinall’s Musick. I don’t think this particular programme contains any of Tallis’s greatest pieces but the music is still very fine and full of interest. The singing is as excellent as we’ve come to expect from this ensemble. The ambience of the Fitzalan Chapel in Arundel Castle and the singing itself has been beautifully captured in the recorded sound. The icing on the cake is that Andrew Carwood is as reliable a guide to the music when he’s writing about it in his notes as he is when conducting it.