Tallis: Gentleman of the Chapel Royal

The Gentlemen of HM Chapel Royal, Hampton Court Palace, Carl Jackson
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The Enigma Theme in Elgar’s “Enigma” Variations remains an enigma because Elgar never divulged what the theme was (if indeed there ever really was one) although he used to taunt his friends about how obvious it is. Innumerable solutions have been put forward, and in the April 2013 number of the Elgar Society Journal Martin Gough proposed that the theme is Tallis’s Canon, aka the Eighth Tune which Tallis provided for Archbishop Parker’s Psalter of 1567. It is interesting that these two composers are associated in this (albeit improbable) way as, above all other composers, they are hailed as possessing a peculiar but indefinable Englishness. Yet both were heavily influenced by their European predecessors: Gombert amongst others upon Tallis, Wagner, Dvorak and others upon Elgar. In this spirit of Englishness, it can be comforting to listen to one of Tallis’s most Continental works, his majestic Missa Puer natus est nobis a7 sung by the Gentlemen of Her Majesty’s Chapel Royal, Hampton Court Palace, an ensemble equivalent to one, with Tallis among them, that would have sung this very piece during the reign of Queen Mary I. But even in such circumstantial decorum there is no certainty that such an appropriate choir would nowadays perform Tallis’s music to a standard that would transcend such comfortable Englishness. In this instance such concerns can be discarded. The Gentlemen of Hampton Court give excellent performances of every piece on this disc. Another concern might be about how clearly adult male voices in seven parts would project Tallis’s intense music in the Chapel at Hampton Court Palace, the acoustic of which might not be the most resonant. Again there is, in the words of a famous blues song, “no need to worry”. Each line, with two voices to a part, is audible, clear, and well blended with its fellows. Besides the singers themselves – the six regular Gentlemen and the full complement of eight supernumaries – credit must go to Carl Jackson for his judicious tempi, occasioned by his extensive familiarity with every aspect of the recording location.

What of the music itself? Even without the Credo, most of which has been lost, the Missa Puer natus est nobis for seven voices is Tallis’s grandest work, apart from the small matter of Spem in alium in forty. The booklet’s notes by Christian Goursaud, one of the six Gentlemen, competently sets out the competing ideas concerning the circumstances of the work’s composition. It is not only, as he so rightly says, majestic, but it is also seminal, providing in the second Agnus a prominent theme for Byrd’s second consort In nomine a4 besides, at “[Patris] miserere nobis“ in the Gloria, pre-echoes of passages such  as “everlasting“ in Tomkins’ Turn unto the Lord and “auxiliare nos“ as late as Blow’s Salvator mundi; both composers knew Tallis’s music and, while this is not necessarily to say that they deliberately or consciously borrowed this passage or aspects of it, nevertheless it is interesting that Tallis’s plangency was being replicated over a century later. No less musically rewarding is the differently plangent Mass for Four Voices, and it is of further interest because, as Stefan Scot discovered, and has noted in his erudite booklet notes for Priory PRCD 1081 (volume 1 of The Collected Vernacular Works of John Sheppard, sung by The Academia Musica Choir), the Credo is identical, with a few adjustments and details, to the Creed of Sheppard’s First Service.  Stefan will discuss this further in his forthcoming edition of Sheppard’s Anglican music for Early English Church Music.

Exploiting the presence of the supernumaries, the disc begins and ends with motets also in seven parts. Suscipe quaeso starts proceedings in the best possible way, the choir setting out its stall for the rest of the disc with excellent blend and a wonderful fullness of sound, while Loquebantur variis linguis brings it to a jubilant close as Tallis lets his hair down for once. Exquisite performances of the smaller In pace and Miserere nostri separate the two masses.

This disc captures Tallis’s elusive Englishness, being sung by a choir to which he once belonged, in the same way as the recording of his earliest Latin music by The Choir of Canterbury Cathedral (Metronome MET CD 1014), another in which he is known to have sung. All other recordings of Missa Puer natus est nobis have been by adult chamber choirs, such as the self-recommending Stile Antico (Harmonia Mundi HMU807517), but the best of those and the most intriguing version might be the very first, by The Clerkes of Oxenford (Calliope CAL 6623) which, besides seeming to penetrate to the soul of Tallis’s inspiration, also includes what can be retrieved and reconstructed of Tallis’s Credo, which is omitted from all other recordings. The current version of the Missa Puer natus est nobis by the Gentlemen of Hampton Court is unique in being sung by a liturgical choir which has the Mass in its repertory, and it is also superb in every detail: one of the great recordings of music by Tallis.

Richard Turbet

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