Summary for the Busy Executive: Forget the Andy Williams Christmas special this year and curl up with the real thing.
I first realized that there were Christmas carols other than "O Come, All Ye Faithful" when I bought the New York Pro Musica LP Medieval English Carols and Italian Dances, under the impression that it did indeed contain stuff like "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen." What I heard knocked me over, in performances that have remained vibrant despite the rise of more scholarly and technically superior old-music ensembles. I found out that, strictly speaking, a carol was a specific form – a Christmas song in 3/4 time, usually in 3 parts, confined to Great Britain, flourishing in the 14th and 15th centuries, and usually in the form of verses (often solo) alternating with a choral refrain. I'm a sucker for medieval poetry anyway, but the words seemed to glow with a genuine innocence. The tunes strode with vigor or wrapped you in swaddling clothes. A composer could steal from worse. At any rate, since MCA hasn't transferred the Pro Musica catalogue to CD, I've had to make do with other groups, like the Tallis Scholars. I've had it rough.
The Tallis Scholars have built a distinguished career in Renaissance music. They do the hard stuff – the great masses and motets of such English, Flemish, and Italian masters as Taverner, Byrd, Tallis, Josquin, Obrecht, Ockeghem, Brumel, Palestrina, Clemens non Papa, and Sheppard. The music demands clarity so that the contrapuntal lines can be heard and a sense of the overall structure, so that it doesn't sink to monotony. The composers themselves provide very little help as to how the music should go, especially compared to their modern colleagues.
The felicitously-named Peter Phillips (his namesake was a Catholic Tudor composer who made a career on the continent) is both an editor and conductor of genius. Since often the exact note (natural, sharped, or flatted) isn't known, the editor must make a non-trivial guess – according to well-known rules of melody and "harmony," certainly. However, rarely do two independent editors agree down the line; different editions of Renaissance works sound very different. It's kind of like working a crossword with several different solutions. Beyond this, Phillips probes these works interpretively, as Horenstein probed Mahler symphonies, with terrific results. Worked that seemed as interesting as a strip mall come to rapturous life under his direction. As to the Tallis Scholars themselves, I consider them the foremost British vocal ensemble group today in any repertoire. This kind of group of 10-30 singers (for this recording, ten Scholars took part) pops up in Britain like mushrooms, and the Brits do this kind of singing particularly well. During the 1960s and 1970s, Britain had the top-flight Purcell Consort, Elizabethan Singers, Aeolian Singers, Ambrosian Singers, Early Music Consort of London, London Madrigal Singers, Pro Cantione Antiqua, and several others. Many of the singers in one group "floated" among others, and some also did noteworthy solo work: Susan Longfield, April Cantelo, Mary Nash, Felicity Palmer, James Bowman, Paul Esswood, Gerald English, Ian Partridge, Geoffrey Shaw, and Christopher Keyte. What sets the Tallis Scholars apart from their contemporaries like The Sixteen and the Corydon Singers is a gorgeous tone and a blend as smooth as Devonshire cream. The tone is based on the English cathedral choral sound, but not as hooty, since grown women and adult countertenors, rather than boys, participate. The blend of women sopranos and male altos impresses particularly: they sound like the same creature. The male altos don't push forward in the texture, as Alfred Deller tended to do in his early Deller Consort recordings. Tenors and basses mix resplendently, with ringing, unforced tone. In fact, the only criticism I've ever heard of the Tallis Scholars' work comes from historically-informed zealots, used to the Trisket-dry performances they've learned to take as authentic: the Scholars sound too beautiful. If you don't suffer, how can you possibly learn anything?
You could subtitle the program "From Plainsong to Polyphony and the Baroque." It begins with the "Angelus ad virginem," which builds from a solo tenor and gradually adds voices with each repetition. "Nowell sing we," "There is no rose," and "Lullay: I saw" also appeared on my old New York Pro Musica LP, so I've known them for close to thirty-five years. All exemplify early English polyphony – usually two or three parts, moving mostly together, but with just enough rhythmic difference to break lock-step. Phillips takes a too-slow tempo in "Nowell sing we," which the group handles well but which almost robs the piece of its rightful life, at least compared to Noah Greenberg and the Pro Musica. Britten aficionados know the text of "There is no rose," since the composer set it – and beautifully – in his Ceremony of Carols. The original has its own beauty as well, and Phillips mines it for all it's worth, in this case surpassing Greenberg, who also falls victim to his own too-slow tempo. "Nowell: Dieu vous garde" opens with tricky "naked" entrance for the singers, which the Tallis Scholars not only overcome but turn into the sounding of trumpets. The text of the carol also introduces us to the knight of the season, Sire Christesmas, who "sings Nowell" and spreads the Good News of Christ's birth. The figure immediately stakes out turf in the imaginative landscape of Christmas – a noble but not angelic messenger, welcomed by all for the news, rather than for presents.
A section on "The Coventry Carol" follows, by which Phillips means a lullaby to the Infant Jesus. All the works here share a "lullaby" refrain. "Lullay: I saw" sets a chant-like melody polyphonically. "Lully, lulla thou little tiny child" – these days known as the "Coventry Carol" – takes a more folk-like tune. In fact, it wouldn't surprise me if the tune originated in pure folk song. The piece has been set any number of times, with Martin Shaw's 4-part arrangement probably the best known. The earliest known setting – in three parts – remains for me the best, with its haunting "open" texture and the occasional clash of simultaneous major and minor sevenths. Skipping ahead a couple of centuries to Byrd's ecstatic, full-flowering polyphony, the Scholars pull off the feat of making all parts independent and clear, while ever-so-slightly highlighting the alto, Byrd's "first singing part."
We come next to four settings of the "Ave Maria" text, all of which demonstrate the range of compositional techniques of the High Renaissance. In Josquin's luminous free setting (that is, it makes no use of the Ave Maria chant – a fairly unusual move), parts enter, leave, and re-enter in round-like fashion. The performance shimmers like a rainbow. The Verdelot comes closest to the Scholars' normal repertoire, championing the complex and little-known. Six parts weave around the plainchant, partially hidden in the second soprano line. You don't really hear it unless you listen for it, and Phillips emphasizes the music's impact, rather than its craft. The 4-part Victoria setting qualifies as a genuine Renaissance "hit," still performed by amateur choirs world-wide. It riffs on the plainchant – alluding to it, without incorporating it as the structural skeleton. Phillips can't keep himself – in an attack of spoilsportsmanship – from pointing out this setting is only attributed to Victoria. For my money, Victoria composed it until someone can provide a more certain alternative. It certainly shares stylistic fingerprints with other Victoria motets – particularly "O magnum mysterium" – from the part-writing of the opening descending line, to the insertion of two-part writing among the lower voices for contrast, to the "chordal," faux-antiphonal writing of the finale. Victoria's setting (and, yes, it really is by him) for double choir shows the roots of Giovanni Gabrieli and the early Venetian baroque in its exploitation of antiphonal sonorities. The Tallis Scholars here produce an opulent sound – divided yet! – that belies their numbers.
The program ends with German chorales and demonstrates the continuity of the Renaissance with the Baroque. In hindsight, two main streams seem to have made up Renaissance music: chant and folksong. Scholars like Vaughan Williams and others have argued the close connection of the two and indeed the common origin of both. However, the development of both differed. Plainchant provided the structural mainstay of the "high art" polyphonic music, while folk music fed popular, mainly dance and song, forms – in fact, much like today. Using a plainchant in a polyphonic, contrapuntally imitative composition tended to turn composers to writing lines that fit in with the chant. To be sure, various composers set folk tunes in polyphonic compositions, Taverner's "Western Wind" Mass merely one of the best known. However, they stretched and tucked the tunes into a plainchant bed. Toward the end of the period, however, as more and more collections of dance-tune settings began to be published and to circulate throughout Europe, the elaborate polyphony of Josquin, de la Rue, and Palestrina begins to disappear in church music, as do works based on chant. We see this happening particularly in German music. In fact, even most of the texts symbolize this transition with their mixture of German with Church Latin. Michael Praetorius's "Es ist ein' Ros" certainly simplifies the textures of Ockeghem, but keeps a magical, communicatively direct counterpoint in cadential passages. Hieronymus Praetorius's (no relation to Michael) "Joseph lieber" moves almost solely in blocks, but keeps the antiphonal structure and choral "orchestration" of Venetian music. His "In dulci jubilo" carries the block movement even further. However, the links with the Baroque show most clearly in the "Wachet auf," where Phillips allows Praetorius the first two verses and Bach the last. They differ significantly only in the chord progressions, where a trace of Renaissance modality lingers in the Praetorius. These tunes stand among the greatest in the world. Composers continue to incorporate them into original work. "Es ist ein' Ros" shows up in Brahms and Distler, as well as Schwartz. Brahms uses "Joseph lieber" as contrapuntal filigree in the second of his Two Songs for Alto and Viola, and Distler spins elaborate choral variations. Schoenberg arranges it for chamber group in his Weihnachtsmusik, with a deep bow to Brahms.
In short, I think the CD an exemplar of distinguished performances assembled with great historical imagination, and the imagination adds to the pleasure of the performance. Of course, I shouldn't have to apologize for Phillips that he actually knows something, but it's the times we live in.
Copyright © 1998, Steve Schwartz