A few months ago I reviewed two very fine premiere recordings of Dufay’s Missa Sancti Anthonii de Padua (Archiv Produktion and Hyperion, 9/96). Now, hard on the heels of the recording by The Clerks Group of Ockeghem’s Mass De plus en plus comes an alternative interpretation from The Tallis Scholars. If in the case of Dufay I found it difficult to offer a clear-cut personal preference, here it is just about impossible. The best I can do is to present the reader with the alternatives.
The great strength of The Tallis Scholars’ Ockeghem disc is in Peter Phillips’s choice of two contrasting Masses. In De plus en plus Ockeghem is clearly modelling himself on the achievements of Dufay and his English precursors, while in Au travail suis he is at his most haughtily original. The Mass’s literally unique scoring, telegraph-style brevity (it lasts just over 20 minutes against the 35 of De plus en plus) and close juxtaposition of vocal contrasts has a truly dramatic effectiveness. The memorable recording of nearly 20 years ago by Pomerium Musices under Alexander Blachly (4/78, nla – any chance of a reissue Nonesuch?) made the most of those qualities; Phillips’s approach to the work (as he himself describes it) is more like “chamber music, gentle and undemonstrative”. Yet the sense of excitement here is none the less palpable in the judicious use of solo voices: listen to the kaleidoscopic changes in the Credo, and exhilarating final melismas. The singers’ individual contributions are the touchstone of this splendid reading of Au travail suis. Those who want to savour Ockeghem at his boldest really ought to start here. The quality of solo contributions in the Au travail suis Mass is also evident in De plus en plus (may I single out Caroline Trevor’s incredible staying-power and resilience in the “Pleni”?), and here it seems to me that The Tallis Scholars have the edge over their younger colleagues. The Tallis’s frequently astonishing technical resources have rarely if ever been used to better purpose; yet The Clerks’ sense of ensemble is (paradoxically) more individual, and their reading full of imaginative touches that bespeak a deep understanding both of the work and its composer.
What else? Well, The Tallis Scholars are perhaps better served by their recording, even though my personal preference again is for The Clerks’ more rounded tone (using a mix of countertenors and sopranos on the top line). The matter of ensemble is less important, though, in Au travail suis, because of the preponderance there of two-voice writing. Finally, The Clerks’ programme contains a real find in the shape of the Gaude Maria (improbably ascribed to Ockeghem), but then again, the presence of the two Masses on The Tallis Scholars’ disc is a piece of programming genius, a little unlikely on paper, but surprisingly effective and discographically most welcome. My advice? Decide on which of the two programmes appeals to you more, and then remind your best friend that it’s Ockeghem year.'