on 3 January 2001
A compilation CD of Tudor/ Renaissance church music, including two of the unaccompanied greats of this period: Allegri's Miserere (of Vatican/ Mozart fame) and Tallis' Spem in Alium. There are lots of goodies in between these two landmarks, which makes up for the disappointing quality of the Tallis performance..... more about that later. The whole collection connects Stephen Cleobury's role as musical director of the choirs of Westminster Cathedral and King's College, Cambridge, within the space of a few years in the 1980's; plus a couple of tracks dating from Sir David Willcocks' time at King's. We kick off with the Choir of Westminster singing Allegri's Miserere pretty well. The ensemble is good, but it doesn't have the clarity of some other versions (e.g. the Tallis Scolars). However, the second choir is particularly assured, with good, rich basses. The piece as a whole gives the sense of a wholehearted live recording, rather than a more polished performance with secure women sopranos. This "raw" quality has its own attractions. Westminster then follow with two motets by Palestrina: nice heart-touching recordings; Exultate Deo lively and uplifting, followed by Peccantem me quotidie, a gentle contrast. The Lotti Crucifixus is spooky and chromatic. It has great clashes, made obvious by pure, clear voices. An experience if you've never heard this masterpiece before (and great if you have, too). It's challenging to sing, because of the intentional and extremely effective dissonances. A truly delicious piece. On to King's, Cambridge for the next three pieces, starting with O Magnum Mysterium by Gabrieli. This is beautiful, with sackbut accompaniment. Genuinely "mysterious" (as the title suggests) in places. The full choir nicely balances the passages for solo tenor. More Palestrina, this time from King's, with Tu es Petrus. Possibly not as crisp as the Westminster Palestrina, but perhaps unfair to compare such different pieces. The Victoria Agnus Dei is beautifully executed, but somehow fails to grab my heart. Back to Westminster, now, Starting with two Monteverdi pieces, Adoramus te and Cantate Domino; both good, strong renderings. The Adoramus te is positively stately, sung with heart and really leaning on the clashes. The trebles hold their exposed sections well and there is a dramatic use of dynamics. Salve Regina by Cavilli is sung by men only. It is rich in texture and very assured - the altos bordering on harshness once or twice, but soft and gentle when needed. Presumably, the men are taking advantage of the lack of trebles to really "give it some welly" in the loud parts... This section finishes with Westminster singing Gabrieli's Jubilate Deo, and giving it all they've got. It's a complete aural contrast to the Salve Regina, with the trebles sounding positively sweet now that they're back! There is some great interplay between the equal divided parts. No collection of this type would be complete without representing Byrd, and here it is in a 1960 recording from King's, Cambridge, under the direction of Sir David Willcocks. The final track is Tallis' great 40 part motet, Spem in alium, unfortunately not in a great recording. It is performed by the Choir of King's College Cambridge, with the extra "meat" provided by Cambridge University Musical Society. There are many more pure and beautiful recordings around. I even detected wobbly alto(s), and it sounds as though the microphones were too close to some people. Not, perhaps, Sir David's happiest moment. If you've never heard this wonderful motet before, give it another chance and listen to another version by, for instance, the Clerkes of Oxenford. Overall,this CD provides a reasonable introduction to early sacred music.