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Barry Witherden
BBC Music Magazine, November 2010


This recording showcases an excellent vintage of this celebrated choir in fine performances of some of Tallis’s finest works, including a sprightly reading of the breath-taking Spem in Alium.

J.F. Weber
Fanfare, November 2010

This counts as breaking news, for it is one disc among the initial releases this June from a new Dutch label dedicated to reissuing worthy classical recordings from major labels. This was Argo 425199-2 (Fanfare 14:5), only the 10th recording of the 40-voice motet Spem in alium, now a standard catalog item though more often recorded one voice to a part by vocal ensembles. The new note written for this reissue states that the recording was made as a successor to the “pioneering recording” under David Willcocks with the same choir for the same label. Actually, the pioneering version (a pair of 10-inch 78s) was directed by Michael Tippett for H.M.V. in 1949 when he was teaching at Morley College in London, though the later Willcocks version was much more widely circulated. The new note also points out that Ledger is two and a half minutes faster than Willcocks. Rather than reprinting John Milsom’s original note, quite good at the time, the new essay looks back at the disc after 20 years with a fresh point of view.

In addition to the featured work, the program includes some of the best pieces of Tallis, the two lamentations for Tenebrae and the four responsories for major feast days, composed during Mary’s restoration of Catholic worship. This disc came at the end of a string of Tallis discs, including two by Andrew Parrott that had all of these works on the first one except the lamentations, which were on the other. More recently, Andrew Carwood divided the responsories between two discs of his complete set and put the other works on two more discs, so the grouping here is advantageous. Newton Classics explains on its Web site the layers of significance of its label name, which nods toward Sir Isaac Newton while spelling the word to focus attention on the newt in its logo. Its proprietors, veterans of major labels in their heyday, are off to a good start.

International Record Review, October 2010

Karl Münchinger’s recordings of the sacred music of Bach were the way many collectors came to know these works. We have become so used to hearing Bach on old instruments that it’s easy to forget that Harnoncourt’s radical St Matthew Passion and Christmas Oratorio weren’t made until the early 1970s. Münchinger’s more traditional recordings date from 1964 and 1966. His main competition at the time was Karl Richter. Münchinger can sound dutiful (particularly in the St John Passion and Mass in B minor), but textures are generally cleaner than Richter’s, he uses boys in the choir, and Decca’s recordings are exemplary. The St Matthew Passion and Christmas Oratorio come across particularly well.

The Decca sound in St Matthew was exceptional for its time. There’s sincerity, straightforwardness and devotion in Münchinger’s conducting, even if he doesn’t quite have the imagination of Jochum’s similarly scaled recording. Peter ears is the Evangelist, Prey is Christus; Elly Ameling, Marga Höffgen, Fritz Wunderlich and Tom Krause are the other soloists. These are singers of the highest calibre and Pears finds colours and nuances in the Evangelist role that few of his successors have matched. The Stuttgarter Hymnus-Chor includes boys’ voices, and the instrumental soloists are first-rate. Most importantly, this Matthew Passion still has the power to move.

Ameling, Pears and Krause, with Helen Watts, are the excellent soloists for the Christmas Oratorio and Münchinger draws a confident sound from the Lübeck choir. This is another performance that is thoroughly enjoyable on its own terms; it has bags of spirit and the orchestra—notably the trumpets—are terrific. The Mass in B minor uses a Viennese choir that is prone to be wobbly on top—and it’s certainly not as clean as Klemperer’s relatively small choir (EMI). It seems extraordinary that Münchinger was criticized at the time for speeds that were too brisk. Still, the opening ‘Kyrie’ moves along well and the soloists (Yvonne Minton and Werner Krenn joining the familiar Münchinger team of Ameling, Watts and Krause) are mostly good. The St John Passion (1974) has Walter Berry as a fine Christus. The Evangelist is Dieter Ellenbeck, whose bright tone won’t appeal to everyone, and Münchinger doesn’t quite recapture the quiet intensity of his Matthew Passion from a decade earlier. His bracing 1968 recording of Cantata, BWV10 (Meine Seele erhebt den Herrn) is also included. This box demonstrates that at its best Münchinger’s Bach still has much to offer.

Robert Hugill
MusicWeb International, October 2010

Not only is Thomas Tallis’s 40 part motet Spem in alium sui generis, but the lack of any information about its original performance history means that it stands completely alone, giving conductors a fairly free rein in re-inventing performance styles. What little we know about the first performance of the piece comes from personal recollections set down in 1610, some thirty years after. The earliest manuscript copies date from 1610 when the piece was being re-used (as Sing and Glorify) for the investiture of Prince Henry as Prince of Wales.

Sensibly, on this 1989 recording Stephen Cleobury attempts to break no new ground, but simply to capitalise on the virtues of King’s College Chapel and its choir. The venue provides a warm, resonant acoustic, giving the piece a continuous background wash which contributes to the atmosphere of Tallis’s music. After all, attempting to create a more precisely detailed account of the work would be difficult and rather pointless in such an acoustic and better left to others. Similarly, Cleobury performs the work at printed pitch, rather than raising it as some groups do. Though few choirs attempt to perform it a minor third up as the Clerkes of Oxenford do.

The performance is poised and relaxed, never feeling rushed but still succeeds in letting the piece flow along; Cleobury is not much interested in exploring the work’s monumentality, instead he allows it to be as fleet as it can be without sounding confused. It is also marvellously unfussy and the music seems to unfold naturally.

I think it would have been useful to have performed it transposed up a little: Andrew Parrott moves it up a semi-tone, and Peter Phillips up a whole tone. As it is, the work sounds a little bottom-heavy, something not helped by the resonant venue. The CD liner-notes give no indication of the size of choir used, but dividing the treble line into five must have been a bit of a challenge even for a choir as proficient as King’s. It is noticeable that, once choirs 1 and 2 have come in, the detail of the upper line sometimes gets a bit obscured.

I can’t say that I have a favourite among performances of this work. I have enormous regard for the transparency of texture achieved by the Clerkes of Oxenford under David Wulfstan; their performance is magical, but few choirs could manage the high pitch. Of the more recent accounts, that of Alistair Dixon and the Chapelle du Roi has the virtue of bringing great clarity and poise to the piece, and they throw in a recording of Sing and Glorify for good measure!

The expansiveness of Spem in alium is followed by the calm restraint of the men’s voices singing Tallis’s two sets of Lamentations. Beautifully dark toned, well modulated and richly beautiful, this is intelligent music-making which allows the music and the acoustic to speak for themselves.

The men are rejoined by the boys for performances of Tallis’s four responsories, for Candlemas, Easter, Pentecost and Trinity. Each is performed in full, with the requisite plainchant, all repeats and the Gloria. The result is a quartet of substantial pieces which speak to me greatly. The four probably date from the reign of Queen Mary and would undoubtedly have been performed by an ensemble of men and boys very similar to the Cambridge one. Here we have history and musicianship joining hands.

I would not want to be without the Chapelle du Roi’s complete Tallis set. They use far fewer singers, with pure-voiced women on the top line, bringing great clarity to Tallis’s music.

This is an admirable re-issue and if you don’t already have a copy, go out and buy it at once., September 2010

The voice is everything in the Newton Classics release of music by Thomas Tallis. Listening to the purity of this 16th-century music after hearing the vocal elaborations of Mahler and Strauss is a salutary experience, almost like getting back to basics. Everything on this CD is religious in meaning and orientation, and everything has communicative directness and carefully modulated sound that well bespeak the solemnity of some topics (such as the two-part Lamentations of Jeremiah) and the tremendous hopefulness of others (such as Spem in alium and Videte miraculum). The Newton Classics label is reviving, in high-quality new releases, a series of recordings made two or three decades ago; this one dates to 1989. The skillful and well-modulated blending of the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, comes through very clearly here, with Stephen Cleobury leading the singers in carefully paced and lovingly balanced church music. Indeed, it is scarcely necessary to know the meaning of the words—and certainly not necessary to know Latin—in order to feel and empathize with the beauty and careful order of Tallis’ very sensitive settings. Vocal music has certainly come an enormously long way since Tallis’ time, but this CD shows that even in a world where Mahler and Strauss took the voice to new heights, there is much-older writing that is every bit as lofty.

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2:05:37 PM, 27 March 2015
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