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Tallis Scholars Doing What They Do Best

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Sacred Music in the Renaissance, Vol. 1, Tallis Scholars

(released on October 12, 2010)
Gimell GIMBOX 301 | 5h14

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Vol. 2

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Vol. 3
In a couple years the Tallis Scholars will celebrate the 40th anniversary of their founding (we marked the 30th anniversary in 2003). Few performing groups have contributed so much to the study of and enthusiasm for Renaissance music. My graduate school adviser used to speak about how students of Renaissance music had to study these scores, mostly by singing them themselves. While that is still an excellent way to understand the complexity of Renaissance polyphony, the recordings of the Tallis Scholars revealed the beauty created by these composers in a way that was self-evident, and not just to the musically obsessed. We have reviewed the group more than a few times, in concert (2008 and 2007) and on disc (Josquin, Victoria, and Flemish composers). Your next opportunity to hear the group yourself comes a week from Friday, when the Tallis Scholars join the Folger Consort for a concert called A Renaissance Christmas (December 10 to 12), presented at Georgetown University's Gaston Hall. That program will be devoted to English music of the 16th and 17th centuries.

Gimell Records, the label established to distribute the group's recordings, has now released a three-volume set called Sacred Music of the Renaissance, bringing together the most celebrated recordings by the Tallis Scholars. If you never acquired the group's recordings over the years or are not obsessed with Renaissance music, this is a fairly affordable way to get caught up -- three sets of four CDs each, with each box devoted to recordings from one of the three decades of the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s (the group's first recording on the Gimell label was in 1980 -- this set of twelve discs is distilled from a total of 50 CDs released over those years). All of the recordings included in the three boxes are indeed beautiful, most of them representing the best available recording of the work in question (and in some cases the only one), showing why the Tallis Scholars still represent in many ways the gold standard of recorded Renaissance music.

These anthologies are not for completists, however, as you will have Josquin's Missa La sol fa re mi but not his Missa Pange lingua (which were both on the disc that won the group the Gramophone Record of the Year in 1987); Palestrina's Missa Assumpta est Maria but not his Missa Sicut lilium (both also on another award-winning disc in 1991); Cipriano de Rore's Missa Praeter rerum seriem but not the Josquin motet on which it was based; and neither of Josquin's two Masses on L'homme armé (the overlap with the group's complete edition of the Mass settings of Josquin is three Masses, with Missa Malheur me bat and Missa Fortuna desperata, on the set's final disc, just having been recorded in 2009). The packaging is simple but elegant and durable: the economy happily does not extend to the booklet materials, which include a full set of texts and translations (English, French, and German) and newly edited essays introducing all of the pieces. The pieces selected include settings of the Requiem Mass by Victoria and Cardoso, Byrd's outstanding Mass for Five Voices and some of Tallis's powerful settings of the Lamentations (along with those of Ferrabosco the Elder, Brumel, White, and Palestrina), and lots from lesser-known English composers (White, Sheppard, Cornysh, Browne).

Highlights include the five/six-voice Missa Pastores quidnam vidistis by Clemens non Papa (for Christmas, unfortunately without the composer's own motet, which was the basis of the Mass); Antoine Brumel's notorious 12-part setting of the Mass known as the Earthquake Mass because it is based on canons derived from the Easter antiphon Et ecce terrae motus (along with Isaac's Missa de Apostolis, also included here, recently re-released in a two-disc set devoted to Flemish composers); Obrecht's monumental Missa Maria zart, a sprawling and densely complicated polyphonic Mass lasting itself over an hour; all eight of Gombert's settings of the Magnificat canticle (one for each mode, more or less), possibly the "swansongs" composed during his imprisonment for having molested a choirboy, music that supposedly led to a pardon from the Holy Roman Emperor; and Palestrina's six-voice Missa Papae Marcelli, long associated with a legend of having preserved the place of complex polyphony in the Catholic liturgy. The selections are book-ended by two recordings of Allegri's fabled setting of the penitential psalm Miserere: an analogue one made in 1980 and another made just in 2007, with additional embellishments by Deborah Roberts (not the legendary one recorded in the Sistine Chapel in 1994).

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