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Playing Elizabeth’s Tune: The Tallis Scholars sing William Byrd.
23 Sep 2007

Playing Elizabeth’s Tune

The 2004 DVD "Playing Elizabeth’s Tune," originating in a BBC television production, features concert performances of Byrd’s sacred music sung by the Tallis Scholars along with documentary material treating the composer and his time.

Playing Elizabeth’s Tune: The Tallis Scholars sing William Byrd.

The Tallis Scholars; Peter Phillips, Director.

Gimell CDGIM 992 [CD]

$18.49  Click to buy

The present CD presents the “concert” material from the BBC television program, and though absent the sights of a candle-lit Tewkesbury Abbey, the sounds are sumptuous, often exquisite, and leave one without any suspicion that anything is “missing.”

The program is a diverse sampling of Byrd’s music, ranging from Latin mass and motet to Anglican anthem and canticle, from dense counterpoint to stunningly beautiful chordal homophony, from celebrative tones to the dark hues of poignant lamentation. Byrd’s music takes the Tallis Scholars only a short jog from their eponymous home base, and to no one’s surprise, they sing this program with the natural confidence and expertise born of decades’ experience. Their performances are alternately suave, alternately animated, and unflaggingly fluent. From an ensemble that has been one of the standard bearers for the modern performance of this repertory, one would expect nothing less.

The Scholars’ sound is distinctively vibrant and free, a tone that is particularly well-suited to exuberant passages, such as arise in the motet “Vigilate” and the “Gloria” and “Credo” from the Mass for Four Voices. The exuberance is exciting and they continue to explore the animated potential of lines with notable flair. The sound also is well-suited to contrapuntal independence of line. However, the lower-voice blend on occasion seems to suffer a bit from the degree of timbral freedom, as in the dark opening of “Ne irascaris,” but softer passages--Sion deserta” in the same motet, for instance--show a warm blendability that surfaces elsewhere, too, as in the moving anthem, “Prevent us, O Lord.”

The text underlay of the vernacular works requires a sensitivity to period pronunciation—a one-syllable Spirit in the “Magnificat” from the Great Service, for example—and these adjustments are rendered with ease here. The ensemble’s Latin, however, persists in being Italianate “church Latin,” and one wonders what so accomplished a group might do with the inflections of sixteenth-century Anglo-Latin as part of their verbal palette.

The program here is admittedly one of “favorites,” most, if not all, well known and well represented in the recorded catalogue. Among favorites, I find “O Lord, Make thy Servant Elizabeth” an irresistible gem, complete with an “Amen” that packs a rose-window’s worth of blossom into just a few measures’ length. The plea at the end of the anthem is that God will grant the Queen a long life; given the beauty of the singing on this recording, one might easily wish the same for those who here sing “Elizabeth’s Tune.” A splendid recording.

Steven Plank

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