Unmissable and a worthy tribute to one of the glories of the English choral tradition.
My colleague Brian Wilson has already extensively
reviewed this splendid compilation and it rightly features as November 2009 “Bargain of the Month”. This ten disc set has been compiled from The Sixteen’s extensive catalogue of recordings made during the ten years between September 1982 and December 1992. Thus, they are by no means new interpretations. Many collectors might already have most if not all of them on their shelves, but if you don’t have them all, purchasing this handsomely re-packaged set might be an attractive, space-saving option – as long as you don’t mind losing theRead more original artwork. Even so there are full and informative notes by Stephen Rice and complete texts are provided, and the box is tastefully presented in white, gold, sepia and black. The CDs are in individual slipcases, as is now the wont of record companies. Never mind the “Golden Age of English Polyphony”; this is now the “Golden Age of Bargain Re-Issues”.
The Sixteen are rivalled only by the Tallis Scholars in purity and homogeneity of tone; the last time I heard them live in St John’s Chapel, Cambridge, constituted one of my most memorable musical experiences. I have read some sour criticism of their “over-use of vibrato” and the over-bearing stridency of their star sopranos in the “mean” line. Nothing I hear in these recordings corroborates those complaints, although the Tallis Scholars tend to adopt a somewhat more leisurely, reflective approach to tempi and phrasing and rather more restraint in their inflection of the line. I like both; surely there is room for more than one interpretative stance in this sublime music?
Mention of the Tallis Scholars brings me to my one and only gripe. It might be significant for a newcomer to the English Renaissance polyphonic repertoire. As Brian Wilson has already noted in his review, “There are some gaps in the glorious English music of the 16
th century which these ten CDs don’t fill, notably of Tallis and Byrd.” This matters; it is inconceivable that anyone could imagine that a representative sample of the music of this period could exclude those two great composers. A case might be made for the exclusion of Tomkins (1572-1656) and Gibbons (1583-1625) on the grounds that the bulk of their output was produced later than the period covered by this set, but Tallis (1505-1585), in particular, as the
ne plus ultra of the bunch, should surely have been represented. Byrd (c.1543-1623) is equally deserving of a look-in. Even though the Tallis Scholars’ eponymous recorded output dominates the catalogue, The Sixteen have given us some wonderful accounts both of Tallis’s major works and Byrd’s Masses and motets. Unfortunately hardly any of these has been on the Hyperion label. If you would like to hear more of The Sixteen in the composers missing from this set, I urge you to acquire their “Spem in alium: Music for Monarchs and Magnates” on Coro, “Tallis: Sacred Choral Works” on Chandos and the Byrd “Masses for 4 and 5 Voices” on Virgin Veritas.
I shall not attempt a more detailed critique of the music and performances here as it is rendered superfluous by
Mr Wilson’s excellent review and I would steer you towards that for more information. Otherwise, this is an unmissable box and a worthy tribute to one of the glories of the English choral tradition – a tribute to both the performance and the music itself.