This recording offers a cross-section of the output of Thomas Tallis (c1505-85), who served four monarchs: Henry VIII (from 1543), Edward VI (1547-53), Mary Stuart (1553-58) and Elizabeth I (from 1558). Each changed the rules about how sacred music ought to be composed. Director Andrew Carwood samples the composer's responses to this challenge, creating a programme that makes up in contrasts for what it lacks in focus.
Where Tallis's polyphony is most complex, The Cardinall's Musick is most commanding. The all-male performance of the Lamentations, pitched lower than in other readings gives it a unique plushness. Similarly, the ensemble's unexpected rhetorical moves in the Sancte Deus have a force absent from its rendition by, for instance, the Tallis Scholars.
Yet The Cardinall's Musick can sound clinical in its treatment of the simpler settings. Faced with regular points of imitation in 'Salvator Mundi', the group phrases superbly but predictably. Owen Rees, directing Contrapunctus, makes the same music sublime, thanks in part to his willingness to abandon control. Likewise, the squeaky-clean caesuras in the Te Deum and in the Psalm tunes—Tallis set them syllabically and homophonically—drain feeling from the words; for these I prefer either the poignancy of Chapelle du Roi under Alistair Dixon, or the heart-on-sleeve version of the Sixteen. By approaching Tallis with authority, the Singers of the Cardinall's Musick illuminate his complex masterpieces, but fail to tap the beauty of his more naïve compositions.