New recordings of Tallis's remarkable 40-part motet Spem in alium seem to appear at approximately ten-year intervals. First came the rich, mellow and still widely respected 1965 Argo version, sung jointly by the choir of King's College, Cambridge and the Cambridge University Musical Society Chorus, conducted by Sir David Willcocks (411 722-1ZM, 3/85). A decade later, the Clerkes of Oxenford under David Wulstan committed their radically different, high-pitched performance to record, a reading that has become equally famous for its transparency and clarity of line (CfP CFP414460-1, 5/84). For the 1985 quartercentenary of Tallis's death, Peter Phillips and the Tallis Scholars have produced a new version; and I should say at once that in many respects it is clearly the most successful of the three, especially when heard on Compact Disc. Not only is the choir superb and the interpretation an intelligent one; this is also the only recording in which the eight choirs seem genuinely to sing from different positions in the stereo spread, a technical achievement that leads to some thrilling antiphonal exchanges. Above all, Phillips's reading is a confident and assertive one. Less leisurely than Wulstan's, and sung at a marginally lower pitch, the effect is more that of a plea than Wulstan's ethereal prayer, and the overall shaping is more characterful. Inevitably there are problems of balance, both at the top of the texture (several of the trebles are given rather too much prominence) and in the middle, where in full sections the music of the inner voices sometimes blends too readily into rich chords rather than emerging as a complex web of counterpoint. But these are relatively small complaints to be made against what is frankly an outstanding achievement. This is a Spem in alium to be cherished.
Like Wulstan, Phillips has paired Spem in alium with another of Tallis's largest and most celebrated works, Gaude gloriosa Dei mater. Here the texture is absolutely crystal, with verse sections sung by solo voices, and again the music has been paced with great care. Although to my mind it does not quite achieve the breadth and ecstacy of the performance sung by the choir of New College, Oxford, under Edward Higginbottom on CRD (CRD1129, 7/85), Phillips's version is certainly highly accomplished; and the same must be said of the readings of the five shorter pieces that complete the record. What a fitting tribute this is to Tallis in his centenary year. No one who cares for Tudor choral music should be without it. Opt for CD if you have the choice, though the quality of the LP is also very good indeed.'