Spem in alium is undoubtedly one of the great masterpieces of English polyphony; in a sense the last great flowering of a magnificent tradition. Like any great masterpiece, Tallis’s astounding 40-part motet can be admired from any number of different vantage points.
In this final volume of their Tallis survey, Carwood and The Cardinall’s Musick give us two versions—the original setting with its Latin text as well its contemporaneous adaptation to an English text. Both cast different lights on the music. Pleading and sorrowful, the Latin words create a sombre mood while the English text has a more jubilant effect. Choosing to record the work in a relatively dry acoustic also emphasises the composer’s extraordinary skill in manipulating such heroic forces and also the singers’ wonderful precision and unanimity of tone.
The rest reminds us of Tallis’s uncanny ability to bend to the musical and religious dictates of his age, thus ensuring his head remained attached to his shoulders. Amongst deservedly popular works in Latin and English we have O sacrum convivium, Hear the voice and prayer and Verily, verily, I say unto you. At the simpler end of the scale some early English liturgical works are included: a psalm tune and a setting of the Preces and Responses. And how charming to hear Tallis’s Canon … sung as a canon!