Thomas Tallis: Motet “Spem in alium”
Media Review / Comparison
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Thomas Tallis died on this day (November 23rd) in 1585 – so I thought it’s a good time to post this.
Scared of listening to 40-voice choral works from the 16th century? It’s not nearly as scary as it sounds — quite to the contrary! This Motet “Spem in alium” by Thomas Tallis (1505 – 1585) can be quite mesmerizing! 40 voices sounds like total chaos — but of course it isn’t, as the composition really is for eight 5-part choirs. There are eight “parties” singing together, as well as in various groupings, and sometimes (rarely) just one 5-part choir alone. In a church, the five groups can be placed such that the individual groups, even the individual voices remain identifiable — on a stereo CD, however, this remains quite a challenge!
My interest in such Renaissance music dates back many years, when I once heard Desprez’ “Qui habitat” on the radio. Many times I have looked for this piece in CD shops — without success. I almost forgot about this, until a Swiss radio station (DRS2, “Diskothek im 2”) did a comparison of various recordings of “Spem in alium”. I then checked on Amazon and purchased the best 3 out of 5 recordings that they discussed (Hill, Parrott, van Nevel). Another one (Dixon) later came with a collection of Tallis’ complete works. Finally, when I saw the announcement of the Striggio CD (Hollingworth) I could not resist. I’ll not discuss the Tallis motet itself (as a composition) here: others can do this better. I’ll keep this short with a brief description of the recordings, plus my personal impressions and preferences.
David Hill, Winchester Cathedral Choir
David Hill, Winchester Cathedral Choir, Winchester College Choristers, Vocal Arts Chorus
hyperion CDA66400 (CD); ℗ / © 1990
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The first version discussed here is with David Hill, the Winchester Cathedral Choir, the Winchester College Choristers and the Vocal Arts Chorus (hyperion CDA66400, recorded 1989). The CD also features 9 five-part motets by Tallis, among them, the Lamentations of Jeremiah. As for “Spem in alium”: this recording is with a boys’ choir and a large number of male singers.
It’s not a bad performance, but the recording has its limitations: the vast number of singers does not improve the transparency. In addition to that, the microphone placement often makes this sound like a “massive sound block” or sound plane, sometimes slightly structured (the recording was made in Winchester cathedral). The singers do well, but boys’ voices have a narrower scope than adult ones. On the other hand, the individual voices are rather homogeneous, i.e., rarely one can hear individuals stand out from a group. The voices are supported by an organ, but that is hardly noticeable.
Alistair Dixon, Chapelle du Roi
Brilliant classics 93612 (10 CD + CD-ROM); ℗ / © 1996 – 2004
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The version with Alistair Dixon and the Chapelle du Roi is part of a 10-CD set with the complete works by Thomas Tallis (Brilliant Classics 93612, recorded 1996 – 2004, 10 CDs plus CD-ROM with texts of the vocal music and liner notes). “Spem in alium” was recorded in 2000 at St.Jude’s in Hampstead — a purely vocal performance, involving 40 solo voices.
This recording is a great deal more transparent than David Hill’s performance, with the singers probably placed in a more or less circular arrangement. Unfortunately, though, the sound engineers did not do a very good job at placing the microphones: I have nothing against hearing individuals sing — as long as they sing well. But here, at times one can clearly hear some bass voice with a “layman’s vibrato” (one where Sir Thomas Beecham’s snide remark comes to mind: a vibrato should not exceed the range of a minor third…).
Andrew Parrott, Taverner Consort & Choir
Virgin veritas 7243 5 62230 2 8 (2 CD), ℗ 1989
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The Taverner Consort & Choir under Andrew Parrott recorded “Spem in alium” 1986/87 at St.John-at-Hackney in London (Virgin Veritas 7243 5 62230 2 8, 2 CDs), combined with other latin motets by Tallis (among them The Lamentations of Jeremiah).
This is an excellent recording with good transparency and spacial structuring. Good voices (all solo), with the support of a bass sackbut and two chamber organs. I can only recommend this.
Paul van Nevel, Huelgas Ensemble
Sony SBM 66 261 (CD), ℗ / © 1995
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This is a CD labeled “Utopia Triumphans — the Great Polyphony of the Renaissance”, by Paul van Nevel and the Huelgas Ensemble, recorded in 1994 at St.Barbara Church in Gent, Belgium (Sony classical SK 66261). The 40 singers were placed in a circle. Just like Parrott’s version, this is very transparent and very well sun. And it is purely vocal (the “purist approach”).
One can hear individual voices. However, these are professional singers, not exhibiting excessive / irritating vibrato. Just the way it should be for such music. The CD also features works by Porta (13 & 14 voices) Desprez (“Qui habitat”, 24 voices), Ockeghem (“Deo gratias”, 36 voices); de Manchicourt (“Laudate Dominum”, 6 voices), Giovanni Gabrieli (“Exaudi me, Domine”, 16 voices), and Striggio (“Ecce beatam lucem”, 40 voices). I certainly recommend also this recording.
Robert Hollingworth, I Fagiolini
Decca 478 2734 (CD + DVD), ℗ / © 2011
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If you prefer a “more instrumental, less vocal” performance, here’s your choice! Robert Hollingworth and I Fagiolini recorded Tallis’ “Spem in alium” in 2010 at All Saints Church, Tooting, London (Decca 4782734, 1 CD + 1 DVD). The CD otherwise is devoted to works by Alessandro Striggio (1535 – 1592), namely, “Ecce beatam lucem” (40 voices), several madrigals, and the Missa “Ecco sì beato giorno” (40 – 60 voices) that Davitt Moroney recently dug up in a library in Paris (see Journal of the American Musicological Society 60(1), April 2007). The set includes a DVD with Striggio’s Missa “Ecco sì beato giorno” and “Ecce beatam lucem”, and Tallis’ “Spem in alum” in 5.1 surround sound, plus a nice and instructive documentary “The Making of Striggio” (sic!).
The instrumentalists are from several known ensembles such as Fretwork, The Rose Consort of Viols, The English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble, and The City Musick.
Different from other recordings where instruments were used as ground support and/or colla parte. Robert Hollingworth decided to use a rich set of renaissance instruments (violins, viola, viols, recorder, cornett, shawms, sackbuts, dulcian, lutes, harp, lirone, and chamber organs), and to have some of the voices by instruments only. The result is a very rich sound experience, with a larger range both dynamically, as well as in colors. There are some sections that sound almost like chamber music, while in culmination points the sound is just as great, rich and breathtaking as purely vocal performances.
The recording sound here is excellent, well-balanced and transparent. One can again hear individual voices. However, to a degree that is perfectly adequate and actually helps the transparency. I can recommend this recording as much as the previous two. I don’t really know where to put my preference: all of these three concepts (purely vocal, with colla parte instrument support, mixed instrumental/vocal) are in a way compelling.