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 Recording of the Week  The Tallis Scholars sing John Taverner's Missa Gloria tibi Trinitas

November saw the fortieth anniversary of the formation of the Tallis Scholars, one of the world’s foremost ambassadors of early music. Director Peter Phillips’s goal has been consistent for four decades – to cultivate a crystal-clear choral sound that allows the all-important musical inner workings to be heard – and the ensemble’s impressive trophy cabinet is testament to the success of this vision.

Peter Phillips and members of The Tallis Scholars
Peter Phillips and members of The Tallis Scholars

Forty is, they say, the milestone at which life begins, and the Scholars’ birthday present to the musical world is certainly full of life and soul. We are transported back to Catholic England with Taverner’s mighty Missa Gloria tibi Trinitas (composed in around the 1520s), a full-blooded forty-five-minute epic that Phillips compares favourably to a Britten opera or an Elgar symphony. It’s challenging stuff vocally, both in terms of virtuosity (listen to the “et in unum Dominum” section from the Credo for a beautiful example) and of the sheer length of the phrases that Taverner sculpts – all of which call for total smoothness in performance.

This is, as mentioned, music for the Roman Catholic liturgy; and the contrast with the English Reformation’s austere homophony couldn’t be greater. Rather than the clarity of the words being paramount, for Taverner they sometimes seem to be little more than an initial inspiration that he quickly transcends. At many points (most prominently the “in nomine” of the Benedictus) we are treated to phrases that seem more like a six-part wordless vocalise than a passage from a Mass. It’s not hard to imagine Taverner becoming so engrossed in the beauty of what he was creating that he half-forgot about his text!

It’s easy to say an album is “full of soul” - but in this case, with not one but three Latin settings of “My soul doth magnify the Lord” complementing the Mass, it really is! Stylistically these three Magnificats vary somewhat; the calm, expansive five-part setting looks back to older, even Medieval, musical traditions, while the four-part is a more intense, closely imitative work in which every note counts towards the overall dramatic effect. Rounding off the disc is a third Magnificat setting, this one in six parts like the Mass. Phillips sees this work as a triumph of Taverner’s skill as a musical architect, with the final Gloria Patri in particular building up to a thrillingly virtuosic climax.

After forty years of consistent excellence, you won’t be surprised to hear that the Tallis Scholars’ sound on this disc is top-notch. The tuttis are rich, belying Phillips’s small forces, and the contrasted two- and three-part sections are fluid and light without sounding thin. The combination of male and female voices on the alto parts offers the best of both worlds in terms of timbre, while the sopranos’ pure and clean (but never airy or ethereal) treatment of Taverner’s characteristically high top lines is simply electric. Phillips, to put it mildly, knows his stuff, and I suspect that responding to Taverner’s music with a slightly soprano-heavy choral texture – a texture it needs and deserves – is a deliberate artistic decision on his part.

All in all, then, it’s a musical peak from which the Tallis Scholars can look back on their journey of the past four decades with justifiable pride. To celebrate the anniversary, we’re now offering discounts of 20% off the whole of their label, Gimell – click here to see the offer. Samples are below – enjoy!

Taverner: Missa Gloria tibi Trinitas & Magnificats

The Tallis Scholars, Peter Phillips

Available Format: CD