The Sixteen: The Deer’s Cry
Coro COR16140. 66’52
Tallis/Byrd: Miserere nostri
Tallis: When Jesus went into Simon the Pharisee’s house.
Byrd: Diliges Dominum, Christe qui Lux Miserere mihi, Domini, Tribue Domine, Emendemus in melius, O Lux beata Trinitas, Ad Dominum cum tribularer, Laetentur coeli;
Pärt: The Deer’s Cry, Nunc dimittis The Woman With The Alabaster Box;
If you are mathematically minded, this might be the CD for you. Some of the most complex examples of English contrapuntal wizardry from Tallis and Byrd are balanced by more recent, but equally complex and evocative music, from the Estonian composer, Arvo Pärt. As the programme note explains, “Here, Tallis and Byrd meet Pärt on common ground”, although at times, Pärt’s music can sound earlier than that of Tallis and Byrd with its sense of mediaeval structure and texture. This CD will whet your appetite for The Sixteen’s 2016 Choral Pilgrimage, when you can experience this music performed live in some of the most beautiful venues the UK can offer.
The CD opens with Byrd’s extraordinary eight-voice Diliges Dominum, a palindrome (or ‘crab canon’) that sounds exactly the same (words excepted) whether performed forwards or backwards. Almost certainly an act of pure ‘look what I can do’ bravado, it was included in the 1575 collection Cantiones sacrae, a volume dedicated to Queen Elizabeth but really intended to impress the Tudor court’s continental neighbours. From the same volume comes the (possibly incomplete) seven-voice Miserere nostri, seemingly composed jointly by Byrd and Tallis, the former creating a four-voice motet by having four low singers who all sing the same theme, but each at different speeds (at x2, x4 and x8 the original), and two singing the melodic line upside down. Despite the apparent complexity of that texture, Tallis then added two additional high voices singing another melody in strict unison canon. He then manages to weave a seventh, free-ranging, voice into this already complex textures.
Other pieces from Cantiones sacrae include Byrd’s O Lux beata Trinitas, the Trinity represented by a three-voice canon, and Miserere mihi, Domini, again featuring complex interwoven canons. It is very difficult for the listener to appreciate any of this musical tricks, although several would have been apparent to the singers, notably Miserere nostril, where just three lines of music were expanded into seven voices, and Diliges Dominum, where the four melodic lines are given, but half the eight singers are asked to sing them backwards. One of the simplest examples is Tallis’s two-part canon, Salvator mundi, here sung to the words When Jesus wept, as found in some contemporary manuscripts. This provides a link to Arvo Pärt’s The Woman with the Alabaster Box (based on the same biblical story) although, for some reason, the two tracks are separated on the CD.
Arvo Pärt’s music provides the perfect counter to Tallis and Byrd. The CD’s title comes from his take on St Patrick’s 5th century incantation, with its hypnotic repetitions of “Christ with me” that build and then die away from a powerful climax. The Woman with The Alabaster Box is a straightforward telling of the story from St Matthew, in English, the close harmony part writing occasionally covered by a high drone and enigmatic pauses. His Nunc dimittis is rather more static harmonically and texturally, each phrase given a distinctive musical treatment. It features Julie Cooper as soprano soloist. The concluding doxology is in his distinctive rocking tintinnabuli style, reminiscent of the sound of bells.
Several of the Tallis and Byrd pieces are short, but this is compensated for by two enormous Byrd pieces, Tribue, Domine, and the eight-voice motet Ad Dominum cum tribularer, the two pieces making up a third of the total length. To prove that mathematical tricks were not just the preserve of musicians, the CD notes include a page on Sir Thomas Thresham’s extraordinary Trinity-inspired Triangular Lodge in Rushton, Northamptonshire – visible from trains on the London to Edinburgh line, if you know where to look.
As ever, The Sixteen’s sound is exquisitely well-crafted – almost too perfect, in fact. It is extremely unlikely that Tallis or Byrd ever heard their music sung with such attention to intonation and timbre. Details of the Pilgrimage tour can be found here.