There are dozens (hundreds?) of recordings similar to this one: compilations of Renaissance motets. One reason is the sheer quantity of repertoire—so much to choose from!—and the fact that within this fairly well defined genre are found some of the finest and best loved of all choral works. Choral fans should rejoice in the abundance, and mostly they do—and yet the producers of these recordings, in the interest of commercial success, too often load the program with the 'hits'—the same familiar handful of pieces—while depriving eager listeners of exposure to the many lesser-known yet equally worthy works lying in wait (Parsons’ Ave Maria, as one incredible example).
It’s a challenge, creating a highly refined, seriously artistic product that a sufficient number of consumers will find irresistible, even if much of it is unfamiliar, but we probably don’t need too many more recordings of Byrd’s Ave verum corpus or Tallis’ If ye love me—at least for a while. Or do we? At least the producers of this disc—director Owain Park and the members of The Gesualdo Six—have made some very careful and sound choices, an enlightened variety, presenting their program as we would experience in a concert, 'where balances of fast and slow, similarity and contrast are brought into play', and where the repertoire showcases 'something of the extraordinary journey that composition took around the English Reformation …'
And there’s another thing: even some of the familiar works here will sound new and different to many listeners because we are hearing them not in today’s common SATB-oriented voicings but in purely male-voice versions closest to the original scoring, and with one voice to a part. The Byrd Ave verum isn’t here (no complaints), but the Tallis is—although I assure you that you’ve never heard it quite like this, the two tenors, baritone, and bass, slow, smooth, sensuous, the harmonies resonating in the vocal realm as the perfectly carved and cured woods of ideally matched violas and cellos. It’s a very special two minutes and 44 seconds that you will be sure to repeat. (In fact, they should just have repeated it at the end of the program.)
And for all the care that went into the programming order, if anyone had asked me (which they didn’t, even though I’ve done dozens—hundreds?—of these things) I would have advised not to begin with the 10-minute Tallis Suscipe quaeso Domine (now there’s one you don’t hear every day!), which puts on hold any attempt to build momentum, but perhaps something livelier and shorter, such as the very energetic (even if oft-recorded) Vigilate by Byrd that follows. But it’s okay; once you’re into the program you will just be focused on enjoying the impressive singing—and the occasional surprise piece you’ve never heard before.
The ensemble’s configuration, which favors upper voices (2 countertenors; 2 tenors; 1 baritone; 1 bass) gives a lighter cast to familiar masterpieces like Sheppard’s Libera nos and Byrd’s Ne irascaris—not bad, just different. The exception for me was Tomkins’ When David heard, whose searingly emotional character comes off somewhat soft-edged here (listen to the Trinity College, Cambridge performance to get the full impact). I really enjoyed this disc, for its smart programming and exceptional, often very moving performances. The sound, of finely tuned and beautifully balanced male voices, will move you as well, as it so affectingly captures this very special music, whether known or newly experienced.