Allegri's Miserere should, by all the laws of natural selection, have been consigned to the rubbish bin of musical history years ago. At root, it's a simple plainchant setting of Psalm 51, the verses sung alternately by five-part choir, a cantor (a role performed here with delicious grace by Andrew Carwood) and a quartet of soloists (on this recording placed at a distance to re-create the spatial effect of the choir gallery in the Sistine Chapel). That it has not just survived the passage of time but stands today as one of the most popular pieces of late-Renaissance Italian church music - there are well over 50 currently available recordings of it, while The Tallis Scholars alone claim to have performed it over 300 times - is due almost entirely to a single note, a top C, sung by the first soprano soloist in the five quartet verses.
It would be an exaggeration to claim that this top C makes or breaks reputations, but for a generation of record collectors Roy Goodman's angelic realization of it in 1963 with King's College Choir, Cambridge and David Willcocks (a recording which has never been out of the catalogues) has in no way been eclipsed by his subsequent career. For her part, Deborah Roberts reaches that top C and floats back down again with such utter sublimity and ease that we could be forgiven for thinking that she has made it her life's work. Ironically, as Peter Phillips points out in his brilliantly illuminating booklet notes, that top C was never even part of Allegri's original scheme; it came about only after generations of Sistine Chapel singers had added their own embellishments to what he had given them. Following on from that, Roberts has, over the course of those 300 performances by The Tallis Scholars, introduced her own embellishments, which, as a postscript to the disc, are incorporated into a second complete performance of the work. These are written out in full in the booklet; but don't fall into the same trap as I did: I found myself continually pausing and rewinding to study the differences between what she has written and what she sings, which misses the point entirely. That second version is every bit as compelling and convincing, and in no way do these 'extra embellishments' (as the sticker on the front cover cheerfully proclaims) either obscure or alter the essence of this work.
Between the two versions of Miserere lies more music written specifically for the Sistine Chapel. Phillips directs stupendously vibrant performances of Palestrina's Missa Papae Marcelli, Stabat mater and Tu es Petrus. The clarity and balance of the individual parts and the lovingly caressed polyphonic lines, not forgetting the sheer sumptuousness of the sound created by The Tallis Scholars add such piquancy to the music and such a sense of fervour and intensity that, despite the fact that this is music getting on for five centuries old, it still has the power to amaze with the freshness of its invention and the awe-inspiring brilliance of its conception.
They have a long and impressive track record, so it's a risky claim to make, but I believe that, on disc, this is the best thing The Tallis Scholars have ever done.