Biographical details about Thomas Tallis may be scarce, but we know that he served with distinction in the Chapel Royal of four Tudor monarchs: Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary and Elizabeth I. During times of tremendous religious and social turbulence, an innate humility and sense of duty appear to have shielded Tallis—a lifelong Roman Catholic—from the worst consequences of such changes, and the result is that we have music which spans the reigns of all four sovereigns. This beautiful new disc from the Cardinall’s Musick contains works from across the period, and it makes for absorbing and compelling listening, with the best of it vividly illustrating the pre-eminence Tallis enjoyed among his contemporaries.
The standout items are the two Lamentations Tallis composed in the 1560s for use on Maundy Thursday. These are rightly considered his masterpieces, with an intimate expressiveness more usually associated with chamber music, but they were not necessarily written for secret performance by recusants. While some performances opt for solo voices on each line, and others go for a more choral approach, director Andrew Carwood and his singers chart a mid-course, with two singers per part. Far from hedging their bets, this gives us the best of both worlds, allowing a measured pace and a blossoming of sound on the chromatic, melismatic Hebrew letters that head each section, while retaining a feeling of intimacy. The latter is underscored by the recording acoustic: the Fitzalan Chapel of Arundel castle, an appropriate choice even if far away (by sixteenth-century standards) from Canterbury and London where Tallis spent most of his professional life. What strikes the listener most, apart from the sheer beauty of the singing, is the range of expression Tallis conjures up in these essentially low-voice settings: here are performances in which every note is savoured without a hint of self-regard, and they can take their place at the head of an extremely competitive field.
The rest of the programme is a mixture of Latin- and English-texted music that demonstrates the sheer scope of Tallis’s genius. The Short ‘Dorian’ Service written for the vernacular Communion rite under Edward VI is startling in its brevity and emotional directness. At the other end of the scale, the effect of the bright high-treble sound in the late-night Compline respond In pace, in idipsum makes even more of an impact when placed immediately after the darkness of the Lamentations. Just as affecting is the late setting of the antiphon Salvator mundi, the opening work in the 1575 Cantiones sacrae, a landmark publication from Tallis and William Byrd; its mixture of imitative polyphony and freer setting is a winning one, and one of the highlights here.
Yet the English-texted music is in many ways just as powerful, not least the two metrical Psalm settings of texts from Archbishop Parker’s psalter, Why brag’st in malice high and Come, Holy Ghost. The latter is still widely familiar as a hymn tune, and it makes a wonderfully unassuming close to a very special collection. Andrew Carwood’s own intelligent and informative notes set the seal on another treasurable and immaculately presented disc from the Cardinall’s Musick.