Friday 28 August 2020

Thomas Tallis' 40-part motet and James MacMillan's contemporary reflection on the latest disc from Suzi Digby and ORA Singers

Tallis Spem in Alium, MacMillan Vidi Aquam; ORA Singers, Suzi Digby; Harmonia Mundi
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 28 August 2020 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
Tallis'40-part motet with a contemporary reflection commissioned to pair with it

Tallis Spem in Alium, MacMillan Vidi Aquam; ORA Singers, Suzi Digby; Harmonia Mundi
On this latest disc from Suzi Digby and ORA Singers on Harmonia Mundi, the choir pairs a pre-existing classic work with a specially commissioned 'reflection', something that they have done with great success on a number of previous discs. Only this time, the context is slightly different in the that classic work is Thomas Tallis' 40-part motet Spem in Alium, and the reflection is James MacMillan's new 40-part motet, Vidi Aquam. For the remainder of the disc, the ensemble (somewhat reduced in size) gives us music by Derrick Gerarde, Alfonso Ferrabosco, William Byrd, Philip van Wilder, and Thomas Tallis.

We don't know much about Thomas Tallis 40-part motet, Spem in Alium. The sources for it all date from after Tallis' death, and the principal source gives it new English words, Sing and Glorify, so it could be used to for the investiture of King James I & VI's son, Prince Henry, as Prince of Wales. It seems curious that such a major piece of English choral history should resound so little in the archives. A letter from the time of the work's revival for Prince Henry, remembered the premiere as being given in the Long Gallery of the Duke of Norfolk's London residence (Has anyone, I wonder, ever tried performing the work in a surviving Elizabethan Long Gallery!) But the Earl of Arundel also owned a copy, and Arundel and owned Nonsuch Palace (built by King Henry VIII) and commentators have long been fascinated with the idea that the motet might have been performed in the round at Nonsuch which had two large octagonal turrets. We will probably never know. Similarly, we can only guess at the occasion for which it was written. And what is even more fascinating is the text, with the suggestion that Spem in Alium may not be the original (it does not fit the music well).

For this disc, Spem in Alium is recorded by 40 singers, performing in the round, in the resonant space of All Hallows Church, Gospel Oak, and the recording very much makes use of the acoustic. We get quite a traditional version (in not too high a key), and it is not the detail which counts so much as the beautifully rich and finely modulated sound, and then of course there are the lovely moments when the textures thin to beautiful clarity. Over all this, the eight first sopranos float beautifully and effortlessly. Whilst Suzi Digby encourages her singers to produce a big sound for the climaxes, which are thrilling, she keeps the piece moving as well so that the long passage two thirds of the way through, where the choirs throw music to and fro, is positively exciting.

James MacMillan has form when it comes to writing large-scale works to parallel older music. In 2002, The Sixteen commissioned him to write O bone Jesu as a pair to Robert Carver's 19-part motet of the same name. Here, MacMillan takes on Tallis's great 40-part structure and writes for the same number of voices. As a text, MacMillan chose the text used for the sprinkling of Holy water at Eastertide, Vidi Aquam, and it is set for Tallis's combination of eight five-part choirs.

MacMillan opens in a similar manner to Tallis, textures are very akin though the harmony is not quite we seem to start from the end of the Tallis and gradually move forward in a different direction. The opening of the work is quite contemplative and the textures are, frankly, gorgeous. In his programme note MacMillan talks about how, in the motet, strict counterpoint gradually subsides into a more impressionistic, hazy world. The results are masterly, and when MacMillan uses full choir it is thrilling. There are few of the distinctive fingerprints of MacMillan's writing that we know from other works, and this piece feels like a deliberate reining in of that quirkiness to create something a little more of an hommage. Though the passage half-way through, where textures migrate from Tallis to the 21st century, is magical.

Between these two celebrations of large-scale choral music comes music of far greater intimacy. The music, selected by John Milsom who writes the informative booklet note, explores five composers from the late-Tudor period who either worked at Nonsuch or whose music would have been heard there. It thus becomes more of a celebration of place than of Tudor polyphony. We hear from Tallis, of course, and William Byrd, both of whose music was in the library at Nonsuch, Derrick Gerarde who was born in the Low Countries but spent a long time in England probably in the service of the Earl of Arundel (who owned Nonsuch), Philip van Wilder, also Flemish, who was responsible for the instrumental music at the Tudor court, Alfonso Ferrabosco I who was a musician and diplomat.

The result is fascinating and beautifully performed by a consort of singers, which provides a finely contrasting texture to the two larger scale pieces. Though I cannot help wishing that we could have had a little more context for James MacMillan's motet, and perhaps more of a celebration of multi-voiced works.

But it is for Tallis' Spem in Alium and James MacMillan's reflection Vidi Aquam for which the disc will be remembered. Here are a pair of performances to treasure.

Thomas Talls (c1505-1685) - Spem in Alium
Derrick Gerarde (c1540-1580) - O Souverain Pasteur
Alfonso Ferrabosco I (c. 1543-1588) - In Monte Oliveti
William Byrd (c. 1540-1623) - Domine, salva nos
Anonymous [Plainchant] - Fructum salutiferum
Derrick Gerarde (c. 1540-1580) - Tua est potentia
Philip van Wilder (c. 1500-1553) - Pater Noster
Thomas Tallis - In ieiunio et fletu
Alfonso Ferrabosco I - Decantabat populus Israel
Anonymous [Plainchant] - Ex altari tuo, Domine
Alfonso Ferrabosco I - Judica me, Domine
William Byrd - Fac cum servo tuo
Thomas Tallis - Derelinquit impius
Philip van Wilder - Vidi civitatem
James MacMillan (b. 1959) - Vidi aquam
ORA Singers
Suzi Digby (conductor)
Recorded July and December 2019, All Hallows’, Gospel Oak, London

Available from Amazon.

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