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Heavenly Harmonies

Audiophile Audition on Heavenly Harmonies

Tom Gibbs, Audiophile Audition (28 February, 2008)

At first this new collection of English liturgical tunes from Tallis and Byrd might seem to stretch across both ends of the spectrum; the Protestant Thomas Tallis stands at one end, with his concise distillations of the scriptures into simple psalm tunes – sung in English, no less. At the other end we have the very Catholic William Byrd, a rarity in the very Protestant Queen Elizabeth’s court, with his very Catholic Latin intonations to God. Fortunately Queen Elizabeth I was a fairly liberal queen, and she granted license to both Tallis and Byrd as the sole printers of music in England during her reign. A century or so later, and Byrd would quite literally have lost his head during the anti-Catholic frenzy that gripped England in the early 1600’s. The two men coexisted, though, and despite their theological differences in clearly difficult times, each bore a great deal of respect for each other and their music shares much more in common than first meets the eye.

I was immediately taken back a bit by how the choral group Stile Antico chose to present the works compiled in this excellent disc. Rather than offer each man’s works independent of the other, they’ve chosen to mix Tallis’ famous set of nine psalm tunes with Byrd’s much longer and complex motets. The only work escaping this partition is Byrd’s Mass Propers for Pentecost, which is allowed to proceed unhindered. The disc opens with what is perhaps Tallis’ most famous tune, “Why fum’th in fight,” which of course is the basis for Ralph Vaughn-Williams equally famous Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis. This track is perhaps the most sublime 56 seconds of music on the entire disc – how could Tallis not expand this magnificent fragment into a much grander scale? I guess less is more, but when the music making is this sublime, give me more! The director-less Stile Antico offers simply stunning performances here; their phrasing and intonation are beyond reproach, and an absolutely stunning multichannel recording is the icing. This is a reference quality choral recording; one of those rare discs where you can actually pinpoint each voice in the superb soundfield. Not to be missed – very highly recommended!