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With its simply glorious choral writing, Thomas Tallis' Renaissance masterpiece Spem In Alium has inspired a host of acclaimed recordings, as Classic FM reveals.
The popular Irving Berlin song Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better comes to mind when explaining how Spem In Alium came about. The seed was sown in 1567 when the Italian composer Alessandro Striggio visited London and brought with him his Ecce Beatam Lucem, a 40-part choral piece. A music-loving Duke (possibly the Duke of Norfolk) was so impressed with it that he "asked whether none of our Englishmen could set as good a song?"
The task fell to Thomas Tallis (c.1505-85) as, according to the Duke, he was the most skilful; the result of this challenge was the glorious 40-part motet Spem In Alium featuring 40 independent voices set in eight choirs of five singers. It is believed that the first performance took place in Arundel House, London, in 1570 or 1571 and if its popularity over the years is anything to go by, Tallis did indeed go one better than his Italian counterpart!
Spem In Alium is widely regarded as Tallis’s finest achievement, if not one of the greatest compositions of all time. This complex work has received some outstanding recordings, with the five selected here representing a worthy and ever-increasing catalogue. Our first contender features Winchester Cathedral Choir and the sound of boys’ voices, which Tallis, known as the father of English church music, would have written his work for. The spacious acoustic ideally lends itself to the ethereal quality of this music, conducted here by David Hill. Although recorded in more intimate surroundings, Jeremy Summerly and the Oxford Camerata, in the slowest performance of our selection, are no less effective. Voices blend harmoniously in a performance of great depth and substance.
The same can be said of The Tallis Scholars in their recording from 1985. Once again a relatively close sound is on offer, but because it’s so well focused, the singers’ delicate handling of the ever-changing dynamics is there to be admired. This is a truly inspired interpretation and one that certainly does justice to the ensemble’s illustrious namesake. Unsurprisingly Magnificat is no less credible, as many of its singers are notable soloists in their own right and they combine perfectly in providing a very attractive issue. A surround-sound mix is available on this hybrid recording, but its the Voices of Classic FM, The Sixteen, under Harry Christophers, who bring the full panoramic experience to the table.
On this occasion an enlarged group is used and it delivers an assertive and wholly uplifting account where the upper line is especially thrilling.
Spem In Alium is a serenely beautiful, yet technically difficult work which once heard is never forgotten, and the performance that just has the edge over our illustrious handful comes from The Tallis Scholars.