Musicwebinternational.com November 2004
This is perhaps the most problematical of the entire series of Thomas Tallis’s complete works – at least from the listener’s point of view. Like all ‘complete works’ there comes a time for gathering up the residual pieces that may or may not come up to the standard of the composer’s more ‘popular’ repertoire. Often it includes works that are not understood to be in the composer’s prevailing style. Sometimes this can result in a very uneven disc – full of odds and ends. It may include pieces that ought to be forgotten, or at best given only an occasional airing. Yet on the other side of the coin, it can be extremely interesting to engage with pieces that are virtually unknown to the majority of listeners and sometimes may be receiving their one (and only) performance.
I must confess that I am a bit of a train-spotter. I would rather have a composer’s work even if it is not the best of his output. Yet the arguments about second and third rate works do not apply with this disc. It would, of course, be over-egging the pudding to state that every track on this CD is vital to our understanding of Tudor music in general or Tallis in particular. However this double disc set from Signum fills in some of the gaps that have become apparent as I have studied the Tallis discography. The programme notes declare that this volume explores some of the most obscure and enigmatic of the composer’s works. We must not allow any negative notion of ‘obscure’ and ‘enigmatic’ to put us off.
However there is a health warning – it is not possible to listen to this disc at a single sitting. It is not fair on the listener’s sensibilities or the composer’s reputation to plough through some twenty seven tracks of varied music. Some of these works are only 38 seconds long and some last a good quarter of an hour.
It is not necessary to detail each track on this disc in this review. It is much more important to get across the view that this recording is a vital part of our understanding of Tallis’s music. It allows us to see a side of the composer that is not normally understood. There is a mix of sacred and secular, vocal, instrumental and keyboard presented in a reasonably logical manner.
This suggests that it is better to explore sections of this CD rather than the whole. I would tend to begin with the songs for counter-tenor and lute. After this it would be refreshing to listen to the harpsichord and virginal numbers. The consort music should be approached as a unity. The organ music is perhaps the hardest part of this CD to come to grips with. It is not that the music is uninteresting or difficult – it is just that most people, even organ enthusiasts, will find the somewhat ‘spare’ style takes a little getting used to. It is all so very different to Bach, Widor and Howells!
I have listened to the other eight volumes of this landmark recording project. It has been an instructive as well as a moving and spiritually uplifting experience. There is no doubt that Thomas Tallis is one of the most important British composers. In fact it would be churlish not to further include him in the pantheon of all-time great composers – alongside Victoria, Orlando Lassus and Palestrina.
The presentation is excellent. The sound quality produced by this small label is second to none. The programme notes are comprehensive and tell listeners all they could wish to know about this relatively unknown music. Would that all CD companies were so thorough in their scholarship!
The playing is based on rigorous study. I understand that a new performing edition was prepared for use on these recordings. The playing and singing is absolutely stunning and I have no reason to doubt that this is and will probably remain the definitive account of these little known and rediscovered works. The performance of the ‘consort’ music is by Charivari Agréable assisted by various soloists as appropriate. It is impossible to fault this performance. Every nuance and every detail is attended to. I imagine that Tallis himself never heard his music so well performed.
One of the joys of these discs is the use of genuine historical instruments. The organ, which features in many tracks, is in the late medieval chapel of Knole in Kent. This is believed to be the oldest organ in England, having been originally installed around 1623. It is obviously later than Tallis, but probably represents the kind of instrument he would have been familiar with. Knole Chapel was owned by both Henry VIII and Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, so the setting is ideal for these recordings.
The virginals are all period instruments dating from the late 16th century and the harpsichord was built in Italy around 1590. The lutes are modern.
One last word. There is a ‘bonus’ disc with this CD with four additional pieces. One of these works, the Litany, was omitted from a previous volume due to lack of space. Two short ‘Versets’ for organ are believed to be dubious works and the last work on the bonus disk is a version of ‘Felix Namque’ for organ. It is included on disc one of this release in two versions – one for lute and the other for virginal.