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Briefly Noted: Tallis Scholars at 40

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Taverner, Missa Gloria tibi trinitas / Magnificats, Tallis Scholars

(released on November 12, 2013)
Gimell CDGIM045 | 79'03"

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Taverner, Missa Gloria tibi trinitas / Kyrie 'LeRoy', Tallis Scholars
The Tallis Scholars made a recording of John Taverner's six-voice Missa Gloria tibi trinitas back in 1984, one of the first in a series of recordings of cyclic Masses and Renaissance motets that made that era come to life for listeners like me. The Mass was one of the best known in Europe, not because it was sung widely, but because a section of its Benedictus movement, reduced to four voices, became the basis of the In Nomine, a common genre of piece composed for viol consort and other instrumental combinations. (More on the background of this Mass and its derivations here.) Director Peter Phillips, looking for a work to record for the ensemble's 40th anniversary, decided to make a new recording of this iconic work, and the pairing offers a chance to compare the group's sound over a thirty-year span -- how it has changed, but also how it has stayed true to a certain ideal of polyphonic balance.

Taverner based the work on the Mode 1 antiphon Gloria tibi trinitas, proper to the first psalm of Vespers on the feast of Trinity Sunday, which is quoted in the second voice (Mean) and often paraphrased in other parts. In their first recording, the Tallis Scholars, as they often do, raised the pitch of the Mass by a whole step, with a final of E instead of D (the original notation was pitched where the chant was, with a final of D). This puts the basses in a stronger position (there are a number of low Ds in the score), but the sopranos really had to screech at the highest parts, where the treble's high G becomes a high A. In the new recording, Phillips uses a different chant incipit to introduce the Gloria, one which is not familiar and probably came from a manuscript source. The group also chose to raise the pitch another half step, making the new version a minor third higher than the original pitch and showing off the sopranos' high B-flats.

The other major difference is tempo choice, and where the first recording sounded a bit harried because of its rapid pulse, the new recording is over a minute longer in each movement. This allows the piece a little more room to breathe, and the better sound quality makes for a more pleasant listening experience overall. Phillips chooses the pitch level not really for any historical reasons but on the basis of where the music sits best in his singers' voices, which seems to make the most sense, when you are going to use mixed voices for what would have been performed by men and boys. Another issue in the performance of polyphony, too complicated to get into at length here, is the relation of one section of music to another, especially when there is a change in mensuration. What exactly does it mean when Taverner switches the tactus from three whole notes to two or to four? Phillips, in both recordings, keeps the tactus (here, the whole note) the same, at the "Qui tollis" section of the Gloria, for example, choosing a slightly slower pulse in the old recording that sounded quite nice. The new recording is rounded out by three of Taverner's settings of the Magnificat canticle, one each for four voices (an alternatim setting for all male voices, with every other verse sung in plainchant), five voices, and six voices. Scores for all works on the recording are available for study from the Tallis Scholars Web site (click the Scores tab).

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