One of my goals for 2024 is to listen to at least one CD from my collection every week, ideally a CD I haven’t listened to, and write a brief review of it. For starters, I’m continuing my survey of the Naxos 30th Anniversary box set.
Thomas Tallis’s Spem in alium is, quite simply, an astonishing piece of music. It’s written for eight choirs of five voices (soprano, alto, tenor, baritone, and bass), and each part is completely distinct from the others. Yes, that adds up to 40 independent voices—a truly massive amount of music, and a remarkable undertaking for any group of singers. But scope isn’t everything, of course; thankfully, it is also—not surpring for Tallis—incredibly beautiful. This recording, by the Oxford Camerata and Jeremy Summerly, captures both the magnitude and splendour of this music with impeccable artistry and terrific sound. While I haven’t done a side-by-side comparison with other recordings, I can’t imagine this music sounding much better.
This recording was released in 2005 to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Tallis’s birth, and it would seem that the goal was to present some of the composer’s largest works. Spem in alium is paired with Salve intemerata—at over twenty minutes, one the longest single-movement pieces of the sixteenth century. This is followed by Missa Salve intemerata and three English-language anthems. All in all, it’s a wonderful programme, and the sound throughout is nothing less than spectacular.
Here’s my one note of caution, however: In my experience, many people tend to think of ‘classical music’ as ‘background music’, and due to its undeniable beauty, this recording may seem like an ideal candidate for multitasking. Please, please, please do not make this mistake. Not only is this music that deserves your undivided attention, I believe it demands it, particularly Spem in alium. If you are only half-listening, Spem in alium can end up sounding impossibly dense and indistinct, something akin to Renaissance note salad. Instead, use good speakers or high-quality headphones, and turn it up loud so you can hear the fine details. Then, let the music wash over you.
Chris Massa is a US-born musician based in Durham, England. You are on his site right now.
Copyright © Christian David Massa