Byrd; Tallis Cantiones Sacrae
This claims to be the first complete recording in the original order of the 1575 Cantiones sacrae, the volume of stunning historical and musical importance with which Tallis and Byrd initiated the printing of sophisticated polyphony in Elizabethan England. Actually there was one in 1969 on L’Oiseau-Lyre, by Michael Howard and Cantores in Ecclesia, on LP and of mixed quality (partly reissued and all downloadable). But it is true to say that Cantiones sacrae has had less than its due attention as a collection, despite its including some of the loveliest and most popular motets from Elizabethan England: in modern editions the 17 works by Byrd are kept well separate from the 17 by Tallis. For David Skinner to call the printed order “the original order that Tallis and Byrd intended” is obviously to beg quite a few serious questions; but of course the massive advantage of the CD over the old LPs is that we can go straight to one motet: we know it will be here in its right place on the CD; and with this new set we can be sure that the performance will be thoroughly decent.
In the booklet David Skinner devotes some space to the problem of pitch-levels – a matter that is particularly troublesome in this collection of mostly new motets by Byrd and mostly earlier music by Tallis, all assembled in something of a hurry. But Skinner actually ducks the problem by having a team of 12 singers from whom he can choose those most appropriate to any particular piece. Even so, occasionally the result sounds at a pitch that makes texture a touch muddy.
They use solo voices throughout, mixed voices with a fairly open sound that brings with it more vibrato than we are used to hearing in such music nowadays. The requirements of the intégrale also mean that there is less of a tendency to linger over the many juicy dissonances in this music. That results in performances that are refreshingly free of self-indulgence. Some of the big Byrd pieces in particular are very good indeed.