Peter Phillips is a founder of the Tallis Scholars and a leading expert in early music. We spoke to him about the latest release in the Tallis Scholars’ Josquin series, the controversy it’s stirred up in the early music world and his work with another choir he’s recently founded, at Merton College, Oxford.
So far the Tallis Scholars (above), under your baton, have recorded ten of Josquin’s masses. Why did you decide to embark on this series?
When we started the project in 1985 we didn’t have the whole plan in place. But we did very well with that first disc and I immediately became fascinated by Josquin’s sound and compositional world. Pretty well all his masses are for four voices, which is not very many by later standards, and each mass has its own take on what you can do with quite limited resources. And as a manageable, career-long project I thought his 16 or 17 mass settings would be perfect. I think after this one there are four discs left. We’re following the new Josquin edition, literally volume by volume, pretty well as they come out. It’s very cutting edge, hot news.
You include the Credo quarti toni (also known as the Cambrai Credo) in the latest disc, even though there are question marks over whether Josquin actually wrote it. What made you decide to include it?
It was Josquin scholar John Milsom’s idea – he came up with a very interesting theory that this was a dummy run for the creed in the Missa De beata virgine, which is also on the disc, and also the creed that we recorded in the Missa Sine Nomine years ago. It was a nice filler, really, and it’s a different sort of piece in that it leaps around in a way that the De beata virgine Mass doesn’t. They look closely related because the chant is the same, but the way the canon is made to work is very different in each case.
Do you think it is by Josquin?
I think it might be an early work. It’s in the manuscript right next to the main Mass so the compiler of the manuscript clearly thought they should be put together.
You’ve also recently founded a choir at Merton College, Oxford; what made you decide to do that?
The chapel produces the clearest but also the roundest sound of any church building I know and I was so lucky to find it when I was just starting out. Jessica Rawson, the then warden of the chapel used to come and sit in on our Tallis Scholars recording sessions in Merton, and eventually I said ‘why has this fantastic chapel not got a choral foundation?’ And she had no answer to that question. So very slowly we put a plan together and raised the money, and in 2008 we started the mixed choir.
Your first CD with Merton College Choir is appropriately called ‘In the Beginning’ and was released last month. What are your plans for the future with the choir?
We want to make one CD a year and we’re just beginning to discuss what will be on the next one. And like all these mixed choirs we usually go on tour in the summer – I hope that will happen again. We’ve got 18 choral scholarships at the moment and our hope is to have 24 which will then bring us in line with the leading Cambridge choirs of the same kind.
The Tallis Scholars’ recording of Josquin’s Missa De beata virgine, Credo quarti toni and Missa Ave maris stella is available now on Gimell records (CDGIM 044); ‘In the Beginning’, the debut album from Merton College Choir, is also out now on the Delphian label (DCD34072). Both discs will be reviewed in the Christmas issue of BBC Music Magazine, on sale 23 November
Interview by Elizabeth Davis