These two recordings have much in common and much that differs. Both choirs are made up of young singers from either Oxford or Cambridge. Their repertoires overlap. Both seek to produce a performance as it might have sounded in the mid-16th century. The Clerkes, under David Wulstan, have a long and well-deserved reputation, whereas St Catherine’s College Choir have had less publicity.
Under the late Peter le Huray, St Catherine’s had already achieved a high standard: he chose his choral scholars with care and was the first to suggest introducing instrumental exhibitions as well as choral scholarships, his aim being to improve the musical profile of colleges less well-known than King’s and St John’s. Alexander Ffinch, a former organ scholar of Keble College Oxford, has brought St Catherine’s to the notice of the public with this recent recording of choral works by Tallis, and deserves to be congratulated.
The choice of pieces is satisfactorily representative of Tallis’s Latin works, giving examples of the office hymn – sung alternatim with the chant antiphon, solemn responsory (with choral elaboration treated in two ways, under-lining either the choir’s text or the cantor’s) and canticles for Vespers and Compline. The voices blend well, the choice of pitch is usually conservative, the pacing of the polyphony admirable. The chant sections, not surprisingly, follow the present trend regarding style, but they do come a shade nearer to what was probably the much slower tempo of the 16th century. By contrast, The Clerkes rush through them at breakneck speed.
But thanks are due to Classics for Pleasure for the remastering of The Clerkes’ 1973 disc of works by Tallis, including his 40-part Spem in alium, coupled with works by his contemporary, Sheppard. These historic recordings must remain available to the general public because of the light they throw on the way musicians 30 years ago were thinking about performance practice, in particular concerning pitch.
Under the direction of David Wulstan, some choirs decided that Tudor pitch was probably a minor third above today’s. This theory is convincingly demonstrated by The Clerkes, and is most striking where the top voices sing divisi in their higher register. Perhaps the most impressive of these is Gaude gloriosa Dei mater, where successive verses are sung by three, six, five (all high, an ethereal, angelic sound), then three (all low) and finally six again. The result is a glorious, breathtaking performance.