The Tallis Scholars

Tudor Church Music, Vol.1: Tallis Scholar

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This budget reissue, part of a pair of two-disc sets, may for many listeners be preferable to the original releases, if only because the music involved, consisting of English sacred choral works from the generations before the ensemble's namesake, is not everyone's cup of tea. On the other hand, it's so good that it may make converts to the English choral sound of the early Renaissance, which retained quite a few medieval traits. The phrase the Tallis Scholars' director likes to use to describe it is "pure sound," which doesn't tell you much. These composers avoid imitation almost completely, use wide voice spacing and big leaps in the individual lines, and employ multisectional construction with expansive settings of individual lines of text. The result is a monumental, fantasy-like sound that emphasizes the timbres of a group of a cappella singers more than the sheer vocal purity necessary in later styles. The Tallis Scholars, an adult, mixed-gender group whose size in these pieces ranges from 5 to 16 members (usually there are two voices per part), are on anybody's list of Britain's finest specialists in the sacred choral music of the Renaissance. Their sound in the most famous of these pieces, John Taverner's Western Wind Mass, is light and somewhat reflective in contrast to the more assertive and even stark sound often favored in this repertory, and despite Phillips' own characterization of the music as brilliant and extroverted. Preferences are largely a matter of taste in this regard, but give the Tallis Scholars a try and you may find them hypnotic. A major attraction of this release is the presence of five vast motets by the little-recorded John Browne (?--1505), with their unusual forces; the 14-minute O regina mundi clara is written for altos, three separate tenor parts, baritones, and basses. It's gorgeous. Gimell's engineers have perhaps solved the problems of recording in English cathedrals better than any of their counterparts, and all the texts so clearly enunciated and translated in the booklet into English, French, and German. Phillips' enthusiastic notes also appear in those languages. Note to radio presenters: the first track of the second disc contains a full 13 seconds of silence before the music begins.

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