22 Sep 2005

TALLIS: Spem in alium – Missa Salve intemerata

With a career spanning the monarchies of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary Tudor, and Elizabeth I, Thomas Tallis’s musical pragmatism became both a necessary and distinctive trait.

The famous turbulence of England’s religious establishment in the sixteenth century, a bumpy see-saw ride between Roman and Protestant sensibilities, required of Tallis an unusual degree of adaptability. The range of his style, from pre-Reformation complex polyphony to the simple homophony of the English anthem, shows a composer attuned to his own compositional development, but equally mindful of the practical necessities of his vocation.

Much of the music on this recent release from Jeremy Summerly and the Oxford Camerata is from the early part of Tallis’s career, when the large-scale votive antiphon and florid counterpoint were pervasive. The recording focuses on the antiphon “Salve intemerata” and Tallis’s parody or “imitation” mass upon it. The antiphon is sumptuously expansive, and both it and the mass are rich in the contrapuntal interplay of lines and textures. The recording also features Tallis’s most extravagant work, the famous forty-voice motet, “Spem in alium.” Tallis here is perhaps responding to Alessandro Striggio’s “Ecce beata lucem,” another forty-voice tour de force, which the Italian composer could have brought with him to England on a diplomatic mission in 1567. But if its origins are speculative, its stature is not. One of the greatest manifestations of polychoralism, “Spem in alium” weaves imitative lines through the succession of eight choirs, unites all voices in sublime chordal homophony, and brings fragments of the tutti ensemble into exciting antiphonal dialogue.

These works and the few short English anthems that round out the recording are rendered with a welcome sense of direction. Summerly leads the Oxford Camerata with a sensitivity towards blossom and climax; the performances are dynamic and compellingly set in motion, never static. The choir sings generally with a full and robust sound--this is not the pristine, innocent blend of the Oxbridge chapel—and the strength of the singing can be exhilarating. However, maintained over vast stretches, it also can be a bit overwhelming. Here more variety in the level and intensity of the sound would be welcome, and might also encourage a more nuanced contour to the lines and overall clarity. The issue of blend seems most pressing in the treble. Significantly, however, in “Spem in alium,” the individuality of the treble voices underscore the linear nature of much of the work, something that can easily be veiled in the midst of so grand a sonority.

The Oxford Camerata, now in its twenty-first year, has been prolific in the recording of Renaissance polyphony. Here, on the five-hundreth anniversary of Tallis’ birth, their contribution to that celebration is a welcome one.

Steven Plank
Oberlin College