Brian Wilson
MusicWeb International
April 2020

Yes, you have seen—and possibly heard—this recording before. It’s the one that made the name of The Tallis Scholars famous when it was released on the budget LP and cassette label Classics for Pleasure. It was from the cassette, picked up in a sale, that I first heard Mundy’s Vox patris cælestis and, indeed, first became aware of the Scholars themselves. I’ve followed all its—and their—incarnations since, culminating in this, Steve Smith’s new 24-bit hi-resolution remastering, in sound quality to match the Blu-ray audio version of the recording which the Scholars made in 2005 (GIMBD641, Allegri and Palestrina); Dan Morgan thought that ‘a resounding success’. Between 1980 and 2005 they had also re-recorded the Allegri and Palestrina live in Rome (CDGIM994, CD, or GIMDP203, DVD: Recording of the Month). These two works have become so closely associated with The Scholars as to become almost their calling card.

Can it really be forty years since this was released—and ten since I celebrated The Tallis Scholars’ thirtieth birthday? Ten years ago, Gimell had their own download facility, but they have now made an amicable transition to Hyperion for their CDs, DVDs, blu-ray audio and downloads. Additionally, Hyperion offer, of course, their own recordings, including those otherwise available only from the Archive Service, and other valuable labels: King’s College, Signum, Hallé, LSO Live, Collegium, Colin Currie, Mariinksy, 1equalmusic, SDG and, just added, the first recording on the NSO in-house label. In all cases, 16-bit lossless is available at the same reasonable price as mp3, with 24-bit for most recent releases and, in all cases, the booklet in pdf format. Do not choose the ‘Download on iTunes’ option, unless you are happy with mp3, which would negate the advantages of the re-mastering.

If you are happy with this 1980 recording on CD, that remains available for around £6.50 (GIMSE401, no download) and the 2005 recording can be obtained on CD or as a 16- or 24-bit download from Hyperion. The 1980 version established Merton College Chapel, Oxford, with whom Peter Phillips has now developed a regular association, as an excellent recording venue. Since then, Christ Church Cathedral choir next door have also been making recordings there, rather than in their own less suitable acoustics.

When the 1980 recording was made, the music of Mundy was all but unknown. We now have several recordings, most recently from the Choir of St Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh, part of an all-Mundy programme (Delphian DCD34204). I wonder how many we would have had if the Tallis Scholars had not included it on that first recording. Having compared the Delphian recording with other versions in my review, I concluded that it works well at a wide range of tempi but the Scholars, in the middle of the range, make a very good case for their choice. Which is not to disparage St Mary’s or The Sixteen on a budget Hyperion Helios all-Mundy programme (CDH55086: CD or download from Hyperion for £5). Both of these bring us more of Mundy’s music.

The hi-res remastered version of the 1980 recording costs £7.99 in 16-bit, £12 in 24/96 and £14 in 24/192 format; the 24/192 is a very large file. Don’t expect the new remastering to bring a miraculous improvement on what was always a fine recording. But it does offer an extra degree of clarity, with all the parts of the Mundy, for example, more evident, yet without exaggeration and still integrated into the overall sound-picture.

If you have so far been resisting downloading music, this might well tempt you to take the plunge. It’s not available on disc, where, regrettably, better-than-CD quality is no longer the order of the day. Only a few companies are hanging on to the superior SACD format: Chandos for about half their releases, BIS for everything, Pentatone for most. Nor has the Blu-ray audio format taken off, despite a few sputters, such as the Scholars’ own 2005 release, an encouraging start from Naxos which seems to have fizzled out, and the Solti Ring cycle in the best sound and conveniently on one blu-ray in a hard-back book (sadly, deleted—it’s well worth looking for second-hand copies).

It’s only a small point, but the retention of the original cover, designed by Music for Pleasure and reproduced with their permission, is one of the many thoughtful points about this reissue. Better still, the original, informative notes, have been supplemented. More importantly again, like all Hyperion downloads, playing all 46 tracks of the download in several players is trouble-free. I mention this because MusicBee, one of the best of the free players, can sometimes be fussy if the information on each track is not 100% correct.

I shall be very surprised if I don’t find myself making this the reissue of the year when it comes to choosing at the end of November. If it doesn’t raise your spirits in these troubled times, I’m afraid that renaissance polyphony is just not for you.