Tallis: The Votive Antiphons

The Cardinall’s Musick, Andrew Carwood
77:39
hyperion CDA68250

This piledriver of a disc consists of the six votive antiphons – mighty works, most of which clock in at well over ten minutes – extracted from the Tallis Edition which The Cardinall’s Musick, aka TCM, recorded on five discs between 2005 and 2016, as a successor to the thirteen discs of their prizewinning Byrd Edition. Also present is the ubiquitous and incongruously tiny hymn O nata lux. This was included presumably as a reassuring lure to buyers well disposed to Tallis but unfamiliar with the longest works on the album, or perhaps simply because there was room for such a short item; in any event, I wish that the less familiar but equally fine Euge caeli porta  had been given the nod.

The quality of all the performances is very high, though not entirely consistent. On a few occasions the solo voices in the duets or trios that open these antiphons are, if not actually flat, on the underside of the notes. That said, Andrew Carwood’s interpretations are consistently and unfailingly perceptive. Also these interpretations respond to the acoustic of the recording venue, Fitzalan Chapel, Arundel Castle, so that pacing and balance between the parts is ideal, never so brisk as to obscure individual detail yet maintaining a pulse appropriate to the texture and indeed the texts themselves. There are some formidably fine alternative versions of all these pieces; the USP (unique selling point) of this disc is of course that all six votive antiphons are, so to speak, here under the one roof.

The first surviving reference to Tallis is as organist of Dover Priory in 1531, after which he joined the musical staff of Canterbury Cathedral. One of the earliest pieces on this album is Ave Dei patris filia. David Allinson, from whose Antico edition it is sung, has established that Tallis owes much to Fayrfax’s setting (recorded by TCM on Gaudeamus CD GAU 142) and it required some serious reconstructive surgery by the editor to render it performable. Most alternative versions of these works are by fellow adult chamber choirs, but the most significant comparison for this and the two other earliest works is on Thomas Tallis: the Canterbury Years  performed by The Choir of Canterbury Cathedral (Metronome MET CD 1014). This outstanding release also includes Ave rosa sine spinis  and Salve intemerata. Here is truly a case where anyone with a penchant for this repertory should definitely possess both recordings. TCM has all the virtues of a specialist and experienced adult chamber choir, as delineated in the previous paragraph. Canterbury take nearly three extra minutes over Ave Dei patris filia, exploiting their cathedral’s generous acoustic, while showcasing their remarkable trebles and expert lay clerks; the delivery by the latter of the first half of the concluding Amen is one of the most memorable and gripping passages of singing in any recording of this repertory. It has been suggested that the relatively shorter Ave rosa sine spinis  was composed for the more modest resources at Dover. Yet again Canterbury provide a penetratingly committed and perceptive performance of another slightly rambling master piece (in the old sense of a piece of work presented by a journeyman in order for it to be evaluated as being worthy of a craftsman), as they do the more musically concise but much longer Salve intemerata  which they hold together through a combination of passionate commitment and sheer beauty in response to Tallis’s tighter construction, allied again to a sensitive response to the cavernous acoustic in which they are performing. For their part TCM provide an almost forensic response to Tallis’s music, with not an harmonic moment or incident overlooked, but then again, neither do Canterbury miss a trick with their more leisurely though equally purposeful gait. If one were focusing on just the Canterbury works, with the Missa Salve intemerata  an added attraction, this luminous recording by Canterbury Cathedral Choir, which seems to exude their pride in having Tallis as one of their predecessors, is an essential consideration.

Another male liturgical choir, that of King’s College, Cambridge under David Willcocks, provides the most interesting comparison with TCM’s rendering of the more compact Sancte Deus for higher voices. Sir David’s recordings of Tallis were revelatory in their day and set the benchmark, either to be emulated or reacted against. In any event, as demonstrated by King’s recording of this antiphon, they possess the timeless virtues of sensitivity to recording location, to the meaning of the text, and to internal balance in relation to overall sound. Meanwhile TCM’s version is as good as it gets when sung by an adult professional chamber choir populated by specialists.

The same can be said about their reading of Gaude gloriosa dei mater, a mature work to set beside Tye’s psalm setting Peccavimus cum patribus  or William Mundy’s Vox patris caelestis  “for substance” as Thomas Tomkins might have said. Here the most intriguing comparison is with the recent recording by Alamire (Obsidian CD716) directed by David Skinner, co-founder with Andrew Carwood of TCM. Divergent career exigences necessitated his withdrawal from TCM’s Byrd Edition after disc nine of the thirteen, and while Andrew became Master of the Choristers at St Paul’s Cathedral, David fetched up at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge in the same role, and founded his own choir, Alamire. The USP of the disc on which his recording of Gaude gloriosa  appears – Thomas Tallis, Queen Katherine Parr & Songs of Reformation  – is that the work appears twice: beginning the disc as a votive antiphon, and concluding it as an English contrafactum with words provided by Henry VIII’s final queen who seems to have commissioned Tallis to set her words to the music of his antiphon. Alamire’s Latin version is 28 seconds shorter than TCM’s, and feels it, while the English contrafactum is a further three seconds shorter but – probably appropriately given the politico-religious agenda behind it – feels even more driven. If Alamire’s version occasionally glosses over some of the internal details that are more audible in TCM’s recording, it is nevertheless still a fine achievement and provides a fascinating insight into an aspect of Tudor history. There is also a recording by a male liturgical choir, that of New College, Oxford, which is perfectly acceptable if one has a preference for such ostensibly more authentic choirs over those consisting of female and male adults (CRD3429). For all that this is a work of Tallis’s maturity, and therefore composed well into what we now call the Renaissance, there is an intriguing suggestion of the mediaeval at the words “quae corpore et anima” sung by a trio of inner parts.

Probably the latest of Tallis’s votive antiphons is Suscipe quaeso  in which all of his compositional expertise – including the manipulation of textures, strong melodies, striking harmonies, rhetorical use of homophony within a mainly polyphonic framework – is encapsulated within a work half the length of the longest of his earliest attempts in this form, and is illustrated in microcosm by his setting of the word “peccavi” towards the end of the first section. Although no recordings by male liturgical choirs are currently available, there are some varied approaches from the adult chamber choirs. Again there is an alternative version by Alamire on their recording of the complete Cantiones sacrae  published by Tallis and Byrd in 1575 (Obsidian CD706) here sung, perhaps a little too briskly to the occasional detriment of the audibility of inner parts, by single voices where TCM employ two per part. Another fine version, different in character from Alamire in being more sinewy, is provided on Thomas Tallis’s Secret Garden  by Ensemble europeen William Byrd directed by Graham O’Reilly (Passacaille 963) who also include both Gaude gloriosa  and Salve intemerata. The most radical version is by Clare Wilkinson and the Rose Consort of Viols on Four Gentlemen of the Chapel Royal (Deux-Elles DXL1129) which, given artistes of this outstanding quality, works well: one soon forgets that one is listening to a single voice (singing the superius part) and six viols rather than seven vocal parts.

It remains to say that TCM’s version of the ubiquitous O nata lux  is the best and most satisfying (that final cadence … twice …!) that this reviewer has heard since when, as a schoolboy, he first heard it on the first of those two famous recordings of Tallis, mentioned above, by King’s College, Cambridge under David Willcocks. No doubt TCM will be happy to be mentioned in the same sentence as King’s in this context, and suffice to say (tongue now removed from cheek) that the compliment is sincere.

Whether one purchases this disc depends on the purchaser’s attitude to Tallis, Tudor music, owning duplicates, time, and money. Personally I own multiple versions of all these pieces, many of which I have had the pleasure of playing while researching and writing this review. I would not wish to be without any of those that I have mentioned, and if, in the tradition of Desert Island Discs, I had to make do with only one such recording, it would be the wonderfully atmospheric Canterbury disc containing the three earliest antiphons. If you already own recordings of all these pieces, you would still encounter fresh approaches to, and insights into, each one on TCM’s disc. If you own some of the works, it is worth purchasing this disc for those that you are missing. And if you have none of these pieces yet on disc (or the equivalent) do not hesitate to purchase it.

Richard Turbet

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