Tallis Lamentations and Contrafacta
Two of the Biblical lessons for Maundy Thursday show Tallis at his most creative and imaginative. ‘Incipit lamentatio…’ the rising fourth, followed by a descending minor scale, imitated in turn by each of the other voices, sets the tone of sorrowful lamenting. Chapelle du Roi capture this mood with calm perfection. The flowing melodies of the introductory Hebrew letters, the clear articulation of the homophonic sections, each element is performed with understanding, due restraint, and never overdone. Surprisingly enough, if sung in their liturgical context, these settings may be easily followed by their respective Salisbury rite responsories: at suitable pitches their contrasting modality can follow on naturally from the Picardy third, adding an element of variety.
The Latin motets that lie behind the English contrafacta have been recorded on Volume 7 of the Chapelle du Roi series. It is remarkable how well the English texts, not necessarily translations or paraphrases, are made to fit the originals. Much interesting research lies behind the notes to Volumes 7 and 8: the identification of the original sources throws additional light on the religious and political struggles of Tallis’s working life, and offers glimpses of domesticity. Dixon’s choice between two possible groupings of five voices, the lower male-voice group and a higher one to include the ladies of the house, makes perfect sense.
The final item, Sing and glorify, is a later contrafactum of Tallis’s monumental Spem in alium. A quarter of a century after Tallis’s death, it was intended for a joyful royal investiture, far removed from the dangers of recusancy. But the motet was cast in an entirely different mould. To wish long life to the young Princes of Wales was a far cry from a desperate appeal to God for mercy: even Dixon’s faster tempo can’t alter that, but what a fine performance his singers give of it.