Thomas Tallis: Spem in alium

“A simply spectacular
performance which earned the recording aGramophone
‘Editor’s Choice’ plaudit.”

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Gramophone

This is quite the best performance of Tallis’s 40-part Spem in alium that I have heard. Sung by a constellation of singers, many of them familiar names from other well-established choral groups, it is a gripping realisation. The effect of the slowly moving harmonies is enhanced by a well-conceived and very positive use of dynamics. Precise entries, gently undulating rhythms that are wonderfully supple, and then those firm antiphonal phrases – one group of choirs answered by another at ‘Creator coeli et terra’ – raise the tension, until we twice almost miss a heart-beat at the well-placed rest before ‘Respice …’. Philip Cave’s note on Tallis’s recusancy background, his coded use of numbers and his acquaintance with influential members of the Catholic nobility (in particular the Duke of Norfolk, soon to be executed), gives the listener valuable insights into the whole corpus of Tallis’s Latin compositions, particularly those of a penitential nature like the Lamentations or the Lenten responsory In jejunio et fletu, and further heightens their poignancy.

That great motet, so central to the whole programme, is well supported by the four-part Mass and the delightful group of other pieces for various combinations of voices. The hymn Te lucis with its alternating chant strophes sounding so very English (I don’t want to say precious, but almost too perfect for what was, after all, just run-of-the-mill everyday chant!) has the tempo relationship of the chant to the polyphony just right, which is a tremendous plus, rarely achieved.

BBC Record Review “Building A Library” First Choice

A truly successful recording of the Lamentations needs to find the perfect sense of equilibrium between linear impulsion and harmonic progression, between flow and melodic detail, between contrapuntal logic and underlying textual rhetoric, between the spacious, quasi-static melismatic settings of the Hebrew letters and the density of texture in the wordier passages. The recording that takes all this on board, and with a minimum of fuss and maximum commitment, is that by Magnificat directed by Philip Cave. They approach the work as if it were chamber music which, in a sense, it almost certainly is. With only one singer to a part, the vocal texture is rich but clear and the singers bring out the expressive qualities of the music without the exaggerated crescendos or over-accentuation of the phrasing that can lead to a bumpy ride aurally: rather, there is that unforced yet still purposeful sense of ebb and flow, that balance between intensely sustained singing and forward propulsion that characterises the most successful performances of Renaissance polyphony.

Goldberg Magazine

One’s first reaction is inevitably “another recording of Spem in alium”? Magnificat provide, however, what proves to be an extremely fine recording of the work that more than justifies the existence of another version in the catalog. It is characterized by an admirable clarity of line and a sense of spaciousness, never dissolving into mere texture and never, on the other hand, being dominated by a few lines at the expense of the whole. A series of shorter works contrasts with the forty-part monument, and these too show an impressive sensitivity as well as a chamber-like quality which is just what Tallis’s economical rhetoric in a piece such as Salvator mundi requires.

Though such reflective works as In ieunio and the Lamentations are also given impressive readings, the Miserere, at two-and-a-half minutes seems to me, like the recording by the Tallis Scholars, too fast, but even so no detail is missed. The Mass for four voices receives a beautifully shaped, intimate but powerful performance by four solo male voices: it is an easy work to underestimate, and Philip Cave makes as convincing case for it in his notes as his singers do in their recording. A fine anthology and an excellent introduction to Tallis’s Latin church music.

View Track List

1. Te lucis ante terminum (2:39)
2. Salvator mundi (2:55)
3. Spem in alium (9:56)
4. In iejunio et fletu (4:40)
5. O Salutaris hostia (3:16)
6. Lamentations I (8:04)
7. Lamentations II (12:14)
8. Miserere (2:34)
9. Mass for 4 voices: Gloria (5:22)
10. Credo (6:12)
11. Sanctus (2:50)
12. Benedictus (2:39)
13. Agnus Dei (3:54)

Running time: 67:15 Mins