David Skinner negotiates Tallis’s polyphony with ‘laser sharp precision’

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COMPOSERS: Tallis
LABELS: Obsidian
ALBUM TITLE: Tallis
WORKS: Gaude gloriosa Dei mater; When Jesus Went: O Lord, give thy holy spirit; Hear the voice and prayer; Purge me, O Lord; A Solfinge Song; Verily, verily I say unto you; If ye love me; O Lord, in thee is all my trust; Libera (nos, salva nos); Litany; O sacrum convivium; See, Lord, and behold
PERFORMER: Alamire; Fretwork/David Skinner

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Those of a cynical disposition might be inclined to suspect that Alamire’s tribute to Thomas Tallis runs the risk of shortchanging its listeners: the epic Gaude gloriosa Dei mater is repeated at the end of the CD – albeit sporting the respray of freshly-conceived English words by Queen Katherine Parr – and nearly 17 minutes are given over to a Litany alternating chanted declamation with simple repeating refrains. Repetition, after all, accounts for more than a third of the disc. They couldn’t be more wrong. Archbishop Thomas Cranmer’s translation of the processional Litany, and Parr’s rousing text were part of a determined ecclesiastical war effort as Henry VIII readied himself for combat in 1544; and Alamire’s conspicuously sophisticated, ravishingly sonorous delivery is everywhere fit for a King or Queen.

Unexpectedly, even the lengthy Litany proves hypnotically engaging, its incantatory reiterations ultimately soothing, whatever the emotional temperature of individual entreaties, be they seeking deliverance from ‘the tyranny of the bishop of Romeand all his detestable enormities’ or petitioning on behalf of the King and his family. Moreover the application of an English text changes the whole dynamic of Tallis’s mighty six-part ‘hymn to the virgin’. Not only is the vocal colouring inevitably reinvented, but Katherine’s verbal firebrands invoking ‘firy thunderboltes’ and ‘the spirite of the wherle wynde’ ‘to punishe this naughtie people’ inject an urgency and drama that transform a glowing, devotional Latin invocation intosomething tortured, agitated and charged with ‘trybulacion’; not that Alamire over-eggs the ‘trybulacion’, preferring instead to convey the earnest duress through the vigour of its pacing and the resonant depths afforded by the choice of a low pitch. Musically, too, the surviving version of Gaude gloriosa is slightly different in several respects to its Anglicised sibling. 

Woven around these three mighty pillars are sundry well-loved settings including a sumptuous yet unmannered account of If ye love me, a warmly expressive O Lord, give thy holy spirit, a tenderly shaped Hear the voice and prayer, and a lightly-sprung account of O Lord, in thee is all my trust (whose dance-inflected music can famously be found etched into Hardwick Hall’s lavishly inlaid Eglantine Table). Everywhere director David Skinner negotiates an ear-opening path through the changing shapes and densities of Tallis’s ever-fluid formulations; the polyphony is delineated with laser-sharp precision, and he can rely on the singers’ impeccable tuning to energise the most audacious harmonies. Sublime instrumental leavening from viol consort Fretwork consolidates the allure. Several unmissable discs have been spawned by 2017’s Reformation 500 celebrations; this very English perspective is right up there with the best.

Paul Riley

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Listen to an excerpt from this recording here.