Thursday 23 November 2017

A link with history: Alamire in Thomas Tallis

Thomas Tallis Queen Katharine Parr & songs of Reformation; Alamire, Fretwork, David Skinner; Obsidian
Thomas Tallis Queen Katharine Parr & songs of Reformation; Alamire, Fretwork, David Skinner; Obsidian
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Oct 13 2017 Star rating: 5.0
An important historical document, but also some terrific performances

I was lucky enough to be present at the conference at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge in 2015, Thomas Tallis: Chronology, Contexts, Discoveries (see my article), when David Skinner announced his edition of Thomas Tallis's Se lord and behold [See Lord and behold],the contrafactum of Gaude gloriosa dei mater, and identified the author of the text, and we heard Alamire and a group of choral scholars from Cambridge University perform the work. I subsequently heard Alamire performing Se lord and behold at St John's Smith Square in 2017 (see my review).

So it is with great pleasure that I received this disc on the Obsidian label, where David Skinner directs Alamire in Se lord and behold and the related Litany, plus Gaude gloriosa dei mater, and English motets by Tallis from the reigns of Edward VI and Elizabeth I. The viol ensemble Fretwork also play instrumental versions of four of Tallis's motets.

The surviving music for Tallis's Se lord and behold was found in 1978, fragments of manuscript stuffed into a wall. It was obviously Tallis's Gaude gloriosa dei mater but with English words. Enough survived for David Skinner to do a full reconstruction of the motet, and he has discovered that the words come from Katharine Parr's Psalms or Prayers and the whole is related to the Rogationtide service at St Paul's Cathedral in 1544 when the nation was praying for Henry VIII's success in his war against France. It places Tallis more firmly in the Protestant Reformation than might have been expected.

The actual piece is perhaps more of a historical curiosity and fascinating mainly for its historical links. Parr's text is a very meaty one, and sits uneasily at times in Tallis's florid, early Tudor music. But as a very particular response to a particular need, it is an important musico-historical device and I could not imagine it being better performed than here. Alamire are wonderfully sonorous, relishing Tallis's fluid textures, though the words do not come over very well and you need the text in front of you. The booklet prints Katharine Parr's original, and I would have found it easier if the spelling had been modernised. 'Se lord and behold ... They saie among themselues ... And there be none to deliuer me from them. Forget not thie pore servant'.

David Skinner and Alamire start the disc with Tallis' original Gaude gloriosa dei mater, a glorious performance which combines Alamire's familiar clarity of line with sonorous vibrancy of tone. Skinner and his singers effortlessly bring this large scale (over 15 minutes) devotional antiphon alive.

Gaude gloriosa dei mater is followed by a selection of English anthems, tracing a progress from the late 1540s when Tallis set the newly published first Book of Common Prayer (1549) through such gems as If ye love me (sung by an all-male group at the original low pitch) which adheres to Thomas Cranmer's one syllable per note yet still manages to be a little piece of perfection, to the anthems such as Verily, verily I say unto you which probably date from the Elizabethan perio. But there is a lot about Tallis's career that is still surmise and it only takes the discovery of some manuscript fragments in a wall to change our perceptions. It is illuminating also to have the instrumental versions of Tallis's motets, which demonstrated the intriguing links between Tallis's consort music and his vocal music.

There is one further substantial work on the the disc, Tallis's five-part Litany, originally written for the same penitential service as Se lord and behold. Again it is an important historical document, the earliest known polyphonic setting of a liturgical text in the English vernacular and possibly one of Tallis's first efforts at composing in English. Edward Grint makes an admirable cantor and there are some thrillingly meaty moments in the text such as 'Good Lord, deliver us. From all sedition and privy conspiracy, from the tyranny of the bishop of Rome, and all his detestable enormities; from all false doctrine, and heresy; from hardness of heart, and contempt of thy Word and  Commandment'. But at over sixteen minutes it does rather out-stay its welcome, the interest being more textual than musical as Tallis's discreet harmonies make sure that the words are not obscured.

This is an important disc, but thanks to some terrific performances from Alamire it is essential in other ways too.
Thomas Tallis (c1505-1585) - Gaude gloriosa dei mater
Thomas Tallis - When Jesus went (Salvator mundi II)
Thomas Tallis - O Lord, give thy holy spirit
Thomas Tallis - Hear the voice and prayer
Thomas Tallis - Purge me, O Lord
Thomas Tallis - Solfaing song
Thomas Tallis - Verily, verily, I say unto you
Thomas Tallis - If ye love me
Thomas Tallis - O Lord, in thee is all my trust
Thomas Tallis - Libera nos
Thomas Tallis - The Litany
Thomas Tallis - Fantasia (O sacrum convivium)
Thomas Tallis - Se lord and behold
David Skinner (conductor)
OBSIDIAN CD716 1CD [75.16]
Available from Amazon.

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