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An Epic, Hauntingly Resonant Achievement by One of the World’s Great Choirs

Last year, the Tallis Scholars released the thrilling final chapter in their epic recording of the complete masses of Josquin des Pres. It took the world’s most highly acclaimed Renaissance choral ensemble thirty-four years to complete the cycle. The sense of triumph in group founder Peter Phillips’ liner notes to the final album – streaming at Spotify – is visceral:

“When we started recording Josquin in 1986 there was no intention to launch a series; but slowly I began to understand that with his eighteen Masses – a just about manageable number for a single recording project – my principle would still be respected, simply because Josquin refused to do the same thing twice. Like Beethoven in his symphonies, Josquin used basically the same line-up of performers to create dramatically individual sound-worlds every time he wrote for them. I realised that every album could indeed be an event, and that the complete set – if we ever managed to finish it – would be a major event. Like exploring Beethoven’s symphonies, the differing sound-worlds inherent in Josquin’s handling of his chosen medium were there for the taking: it was our task to find them. It has been a search which at times has proved extremely taxing, not least because of Josquin’s crazily wide voice-ranges. But it has defined the career of The Tallis Scholars.”

Where was this major event celebrated? It wasn’t. The Tallis Scholars completed their first US tour in eons a couple of years ago…but that was before the lockdowners rebranded a seasonal  flu as the apocalypse, and used it as a pretext for criminalizing live music in most parts of the world. For now, as more and more of the world breaks free of the lockdown, we have this album to inspire us while we look forward to returning to normal.

The blend of voices here is characteristically celestial. There’s been plenty of turnover in the choir since they first took the stage almost fifty years ago; the current lineup features a cast as strong as ever. There are three pieces here, each of them dating from around 1500. There’s one written for the Duke of Ferrara in Italy, as well as the Missa D’ung aultre amer, and the Missa Faysant Regretz. That latter title may remind you of a Cole Porter song; it’s actually a requiem of sorts. This music is state-of-the-art for its time, foreshadowing the counterpoint and the devious mathematics of Bach.

Each is a radically different setting of a liturgical theme. Few if any of the robber barons of the Middle Ages were religious, but they paid lip service to it since it helped keep the peasants in line…and provided a convenient excuse to throw a party. In the first mass, Josquin cleverly uses musical code to weave a local dictator’s name into the music, a European counterpart to what the praise singers of sub-Saharan Africa were doing for the tyrants in their part of the world.

There’s well over an hour’s worth of music here. Baritones resound, sopranos soar and intertwine, often ranging from stark to lush and back in the course of less than a couple of minutes. This is most noticeable in the second mass, composed of very brief segments. The Amen section of the Missa Faysant Regretz will give you chills, and the effect lingers through successive interludes. The way the composer uses the simplest riffs to build increasingly complex webs will entrance you…literally.  And the echo effects, and dynamic shifts will lift you out of your reverie in appreciation of how talented musicians and composers managed to transcend the restrictions of an earlier era, one which more and more eerily has come to resemble our own.

January 10, 2021 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album of the Day 11/11/10

Every day our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Thursday’s album is #810:

Sacred Music in the Renaissance, Volume 1 – The Tallis Scholars: Finest Recordings 1980-1989

Conventional wisdom is that the audience for Renaissance vocal music is pretty much limited to those who sing it, and who attend churches where it is performed. One look at the crowds who come out for this sort of thing disproves that theory: the appeal of early music transcends everything, including time. This collection is only the second to make its debut at this site on this list. It’s a staggeringly comprehensive five-disc set including some of the most stunning, epic choral works of the Middle Ages as well as an entire cd devoted to the work of seminal British composer Thomas Tallis, for whom the group is named. The Tallis Scholars are hardly the only ensemble to sing these works, but their influence as performers, popularizers and archivists rescuing treasures largely unheard for decades or even centuries cannot be underestimated. Highlights include a surprisingly brisk, vividly energetic performance of John Sheppard’s towering, death-fixated Media Vita and Tallis’ serpentine suite Spem in Alium along with shorter pieces, both iconic and lesser-known, by Palestrina, Allegri, Josquin des Prez, Crecquillon, Cornysh and Victoria. Many are ornate, with harmonies that span several octaves; others are spare and haunting, as one would expect from music made in an era where life was even shorter and more brutish than it is now. Director Peter Phillips made waves and essentially changed the way choral music was recorded by combining the best sections from multiple takes, just as rock albums are made: in twenty years, he’d see his radical innovation adopted by pretty much everyone else in his field. This collection is just out in Fall 2010 and available from Harmonia Mundi.

November 11, 2010 Posted by | classical music, lists, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: John Sheppard: Media Vita – Stile Antico

Stile Antico, the world’s most famous early music choral group, have outdone themselves. You probably know them – their most recent album Song of Songs topped the classical charts last year. Their latest is their best yet, a lush, majestic, hypnotic collection of works by cutting-edge sixteenth century British choirmaster John Sheppard. This isn’t the first all-Sheppard album – the Tallis Scholars did one over twenty years ago – but it is unquestionably the best. And hopefully the first of several more. In some ways, Sheppard was your typical hardworking church choir leader – never published during his lifetime, his work was performed by whatever group he happened to be working with…including the singers of the Queen’s Chapel. How could such a high-profile artist have fallen so far into obscurity? Lack of available manuscripts, many with missing parts; widespread availability of other perfectly good material to sing; the stubborn fact that Sheppard’s lavish scores are so challenging; and perhaps most plausibly, the fact that many of Sheppard’s works are in Latin, created for Mary Tudor’s Catholic liturgy, hardly a canon that your typical Anglican choir would have any desire to revisit. Technically speaking, Sheppard went for a giant wall of sound, utilizing six-part harmonies and even greater permutations along with dizzying counterpoint, but the six women and eight men of Stile Antico seem to relish the challenge (you can try this at home – there are scores at the Choral Public Domain Library) .

The centerpiece here is Sheppard’s colossal, haunting, death-fixated Media Vita. In an age when early mortality was the rule rather than the exception, it made sense (Sheppard himself probably never made it to fifty). It’s essentially a plea to be spared from impending death. Opening dramatically and continuing with an unrelenting intensity, the piece goes on for over twenty-five minutes – if you think the Messiah is difficult, try this on for size. What’s most amazing about this is that unlike an instrumental group or rock band, a choir can’t just punch in and record over a mistake: Stile Antico sing this all the way through, live.The other pieces here vividly illustrate the diversity of Sheppard’s compositions, notably the far more lively, soaring and only slightly less titanic call-and-response of the opening antiphon, and a couple of English-language hymnal arrangements which probably date from earlier in Sheppard’s career but already find him pushing the envelope. One of them was contemporaneously transcribed (or perhaps even originally written) as an instrumental for strings, testament to both Sheppard’s popularity during his lifetime as well as the melodic strength of his writing.

Not only is this album exquisitely sung, it is also exquisitely produced. The location where it was recorded doesn’t seem to be common knowledge (maybe the group are keeping it a secret!), but wherever it is, the natural reverb and slow decay time richly enhance the otherworldly – some would say heavenly – sonics.

March 1, 2010 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment