Peter Phillips & the Tallis Scholars Return, Part 1

Program: #21-19   Air Date: May 03, 2021

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After a long break, one of our most frequent guests returns to share his extraordinary efforts. This week Peter Phillips shares works by Victoria, more from the Josquin cycle, and music by the great Tudor master John Taverner.

NOTE: All of the music on this program is performed by The Tallis Scholars directed by our guest Peter Phillips. For complete information:

I. Victoria/Padilla: Lamentations of Jeremiah (Gimell CD CDGIM 043).

From In March 1980 The Tallis Scholars made their very first recording for the Gimell label, a celebrated programme that included Allegri’s Miserere. Since then the Gimell label has issued a steady stream of acclaimed recordings by the ensemble and the Gimell story is one of consistent success and artistic excellence. This new CD, which is timed to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of that first recording, also happens to be the fiftieth new recording on the label.

Superficially, one might have looked for such an anniversary release to consist of music that is more obviously celebratory in tone. However, though the music recorded here is solemn in nature the disc can be said very fairly to be a celebration of the core virtues both of the label and of The Tallis Scholars. Thus the quality of the performances is absolutely excellent. Furthermore, though there’s nothing remotely stuffy or academic about the music making, the performances are clearly rooted in very sound scholarship. Then there’s also the extremely good recorded sound to consider and the high calibre of the documentation. In short, this CD is fully up to the long-established traditions of the Gimell house.

The three days leading up to Easter Sunday ‚Äď Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday ‚Äď have always been days of special significance in the Christian church. In the Roman Catholic tradition these three days ‚Äď the Triduum ‚Äď are marked by liturgies of special solemnity during which the Passion and Death of Christ are marked and contemplated prior to the celebration of the Resurrection. Naturally, much of the liturgical observance during these days is meditative in nature. Nowhere was observance of the solemnity of the Triduum more marked than in Counter Reformation Spain and the music recorded here is suitably intense and thoughtful. Victoria composed this music to be sung at the office of Matins on each of the three days.

There are three Lamentations for each of the three days and every one ends with the poignant phrase ‚ÄėJerusalem, Jerusalem, convertere ad Dominum Deus tuum‚Äô (‚ÄėJerusalem, Jerusalem, turn to the Lord your God‚Äô). These phrases bring a musical and literary unity to the music, though it‚Äôs very important to remember that originally they would not have all been heard together. However, I think there‚Äôs a very strong case for hearing them as a sequence. Indeed, as I listened it struck me that in these pieces we almost get something of a microcosm of the Triduum, even if the texts themselves, which significantly pre-date the birth of Christ, make no direct reference to the events of Holy Week.

Victoria‚Äôs music is wonderfully intense, very affecting and expressive. It‚Äôs also extremely beautiful. Peter Phillips and his gifted singers perform them outstandingly well, realising marvellously what Phillips refers to as the ‚Äúplangent austerity‚ÄĚ of the music. As one listens everything sounds so natural and inevitable as Victoria‚Äôs long phrases unfold. Technique such as this is the result of what must have been painstaking preparation yet the performances never sound at all studied. I was interested to read that Peter Phillips had encouraged his singers to put more intensity into the main body of the text of each Lamentation than into the ‚ÄėJerusalem‚Äô phrases. They certainly respond with the intensity that he sought. For example, they impart great tension to the passage in the second Maundy Thursday Lamentation that begins with the words ‚ÄėEt egressus est a filia Sion omnis decor eius‚Äô (‚ÄėThe daughter of Sion has lost all her beauty‚Äô). Later on, sample the depth of feeling in the singing of the words ‚ÄėEgo vir videns paupertatem meum‚Äô (‚ÄėI am the man who has seen affliction‚Äô), which occur in the third Good Friday Lamentation. The third and last Lamentation for Holy Saturday is a little different in that the text is an overt prayer. This is the longest of the nine pieces and it‚Äôs a heartfelt supplication by the prophet. The Tallis Scholars reserve some of their most fervent singing for this piece and it‚Äôs as moving as anything you‚Äôll hear on the disc.

In addition to Victoria’s music we’re offered the Maundy Thursday Lamentations by Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla. He is an interesting character, one of a host of Iberian musicians who journeyed to Latin America in the sixteenth- and seventeenth centuries to assist in the evangelisation of the New World through the provision of liturgical music in the many churches and cathedrals built by the conquistadors. It’s not known exactly when Padilla emigrated but by October 1622 he was cantor and assistant Master of the Music at the cathedral in Puebla, Mexico and seven years later be was promoted to the post of Maestro de Capilla at the cathedral, a post that he held until his death. Padilla’s Lamentations, which are scored for six voices (SSATTB), are performed in an edition by Bruno Turner. I don’t think that Padilla quite matches the intensity of Victoria’s settings but the music is still very impressive indeed and once again it’s performed with The Tallis Scholars’ fine mixture of finesse and commitment.

Throughout the whole programme the standard of singing is of the very highest order. Tuning, blend and ensemble are immaculate. The voices are balanced impeccably and the diction is admirably clear. Furthermore, the recorded sound that engineer Philip Hobbs has produced is really lovely and pleasingly atmospheric. He has managed to convey an aural image that is at once spacious yet intimate, giving a very clear and present sonic image of the singers. As I indicated earlier, this CD is in the best traditions of the house. It is, in short, an outstanding release that celebrates the thirtieth anniversary of Gimell in the most distinguished manner possible.


II. Josquin Masses: De Beata Virgine & Ave maris stella (Gimell CD CDGIM 044).

From International Record Review: For their latest recording The Tallis Scholars return to one of the greatest composers of the high Renaissance, with compelling accounts of two Masses by Josquin Desprez that seem opposed in terms of complexity and innovation yet united in artistry and craftsmanship. United, too, in other ways, as we discover from director Peter Phillips's booklet note: "With this recording we come to two of Josquin's most intense canonic Masses, both based on plainchant themes. They make an intriguing pair. The Missa De beata virgine (a late work) makes use of different chants in different modes, united only by the Marian theme of the original texts. The Missa Ave maris stella (an earlier, middle period work) is based on just one chant melody, Ave maris stella).

The first verse of the hymn is recorded here for reference; also included is the Credo quarti toni, which in the Cambrai manuscript appears after the Missa De beata virgine and which uses the same plainchant melody on which the Creeds of the two Masses are based. As with their previous Josquin recordings, The Tallis Scholars here achieve an extraordinary clarity of diction, line and texture that leans more towards explication rather than expression. That they get away with it is down to a sophisticated sense of word-painting that grows as much out of the tensions created by the complexity of the music as the meaning of the texts. This is especially true in that section of the Creed of the Missa De beata virgine which begins at Qui cum Patre et Filio (Who with the Father and the Son), which Phillips describes as 'the most famous passage of all' and which 'proved to be irresistible material' for theorists and was 'quoted endlessly'. Here both the canon and freer melodic material are thrown into sharp relief by an intensity that offers a steely elegance rather than mere beauty. The same movements Amen shares a similar, though more incandescent intensity. Also superbly rendered are the Sanctus of the Missa Ave maris stella, with its wonderful trio, and the Agnus Dei, which, to quote Phillips again, 'finds Josquin at his most inventive and his most inspired'. As does this recording by The Tallis Scholars.

Robert Levett


III. John Taverner: Magnificats/Missa Gloria tibi Trinitas (Gimell CD CDGIM 045).

From Classica:
The Tallis are well worth a Mass*         Choc de Classica

One couldn’t hope for a more beautiful recording from the Tallis Scholars to celebrate their 40th year, touching and other worldly from beginning to end. For this 'anniversary' recording, marking their 40 years, the Tallis Scholars have chosen to return to Taverner’s Missa Gloria tibi Trinitas, already recorded by them nearly 30 years ago. This particularly rich composition, which according to Peter Phillips illustrates the quintessence of the English renaissance repertoire, captivates its listeners from the very first moment, before delivering ever greater fascination at each successive hearing. The twisting, fascinating melodies; the daring use of time-changes; the fullness of part-writing which is both dense and drawn-out at the same time, is all deeply impressive.

The music itself puts its interpreters through some taxing technical hoops, most notably the high voices who have an unusually wide range. But without any question a comparison of the two versions of this work made by the Tallis Scholars must come down in favour of this one: clearer, more fluid, with a real gain in rhythmic precision alongside a maturer understanding of how the phrases lie. In fact the most remarkable aspect of this latest recording is the way the ensemble breathes as if it is one person, their collective energy harnessed and controlled, which is particularly noticeable in those sections of the writing where Taverner draws out the lines with his extraordinary ability to convey spaciousness.

The plainchant melody which the mass is based on isn’t sung here in its monodic version; but it can be found written into the innermost workings of the polyphony. And it is a real pleasure to follow the unfolding of this cantus firmus: to recognise it when it is hidden in the heart of the polyphony, most obviously at the beginning of each of the movements, and then to hear it when it is on the surface and more audible, as at the beginning of the Qui tollis and Benedictus. Here Taverner entrusts it initially to the basses before the other voices take it over, in a seemingly inexhaustible web of filigree detail.

Editor's Note:
* this is a reference to Henry IV of Navarre’s conversion to Catholicism. In order to become King of France he had to renounce his Protestantism, saying that "Paris was well worth a Mass".

Composer Info

Tomas Luis de Victoria, Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla, Josquin Desprez, John Taverner

CD Info

Gimell CD CDGIM 043, Gimell CD CDGIM 044, Gimell CD CDGIM 045