English Madrigals

The Tallis Scholars / Peter Phillips (Gimell GIMSE 403)

11 February 2008 4 stars

The Tallis Scholars: English MadrigalsNo music conjures up the sights and smells of summer for me quite like the sound of madrigals. Listening to this disc from the The Tallis Scholars – their sole recording of secular music – is a real treat, dragging me back to warmer, sunnier times.

These madrigals, recorded in 1982 but unavailable for over twenty years, have been re-released on The Tallis Scholars' own label, Gimell. The record label has much to boast, including being the first independent label to receive the Gramophone Record of the Year Award, in 1987; to date, it remains the only Early Music recording to have done so.

Recordings of these secular madrigals are far from plentiful so this release is welcome indeed. As musical director Peter Phillips insists in the sleeve notes, these compositions are in no way inferior to their sacred counterparts, a common prejudice placed against them. What immediately struck me about this recording is the unique sound quality of the music, something which is also emphasised in the sleeve notes. The secular madrigals were recorded in the Great Hall at Deene Park, the acoustic of which, Phillips goes on to explain, was purposefully chosen to allow minimum reverberation so that the primary focus could be expression of the text. This careful acoustic choice makes a positive impact and suits the music perfectly.

The CD is split into two sections: the secular opening is followed by a set of sacred madrigals, and Phillips goes some way to justify this inclusion of sacred tracks from a later recording in his notes. But although they feel by no means out of place, I feel a little disappointed that the innovative move to release this secular material from a group so well known for their performances of sacred music was safe-guarded by the inclusion of tracks of the latter genre.

Clearly that is where Phillips and the group feel most confident, where his deepest passion lies. Indeed, Phillips concedes that whilst he feels that the secular madrigals present great choral writing, he had not recorded this kind of repertoire before or since simply because there is such a great deal of sacred music of high quality that he still wants to work on. But in light of the practical perspective of needing to create a CD of reasonable length, the link between these two recordings is perfectly feasible and provides an opportunity for comparison between these two approaches to the same musical form.

The Tallis Scholars, singing on one-to-a-part, create the perfect warm, full-sounding and intimate sonic world for the music in hand. The countertenor timbre from Michael Chance, in particular, adds a beautifully sweet resonance to moments of lament, such as in 'Phyllis, I fain would die now'. In the same work, the contrast between male and female voices, as they move closer and closer together, is sublimely performed; this allows the juxtaposition of the simple act of wooing that the words convey and the complexity of the polyphonic texture to have the full impact it deserves.

Whilst there is life in the faster madrigals, a feeling of moderation and slight restraint remains in certain tracks, most notably Bennet's 'All Creatures Now'. This approach does give the music a stability, allowing the parallel runs room to really make an impact upon the listener, but it perhaps lacks the exuberance and passion that is evident in the slower tracks. Elsewhere, contrast is made - rightly and with great style - between the more languishing, mellifluous works (which Phillips confesses to prefer) and the more lively numbers.

Phillips' inclusion of the sacred madrigals goes some way to show just how influential the secular form of the madrigal was upon sacred compositions at the time. On some occasions, the same madrigal would be used in both settings, and to illustrate this trend, 'Woe is Me' has been recorded in both settings - the sacred and the secular.

That this is the only secular music in The Tallis Scholars' discography is indeed a shame, though we should be thankful they made the decision to release it at all. The album offers a well-recorded and varied selection which illustrates the worth and quality of these secular works. It shows that madrigals represent more than just a frivolous musical pastime, that they can be complex and beautiful pieces of music. Any chance of some more, Gimell?

By Claudine Nightingale