This recording of the Missa Corona spinea (recorded in Merton College Chapel, Oxford) showcases The Tallis Scholars' musical and technical strengths. The music makes enormous technical demands on the singers; not least the trebles whose lines (sung by Janet Coxwell and Amy Haworth) push unremittingly upwards - as if striving for celestial heights: indeed, the treble lines sometimes seem to have floated free from their ensemble moorings, so stratospheric are their meanderings.
There is certainly a sense of the thrill of a communion with heavenly realms as Phillips generates tremendous dynamism and excitement, rippling through the six vocal lines. Taverner's invention is seemingly infinite: the melodic effusions spin and swirl, and The Tallis Scholars combine clarity and precision with the ability to sustain the musical narrative of the elongated, elaborate vocal phrases - through extensive sequences, ornamental decoration and passages of antiphony. Characteristically, intonation and blend are superlative. Impressive, too, is the way Phillips shapes the phrases and structures - the sequences and canons which impose ‘order' on the melodic extravagance - with an ear and eye to their function within the liturgical context, but also injects interpretative freedom.
The circumstances of the first performance of the Mass are unknown, but in a succinct, informative liner-article Peter Phillips speculates that it may have been written for performance in Thomas Wolsey's gigantic new foundation of Cardinal College, Oxford - an institution where Taverner was Informator between 1526 and 1530. There is apparently evidence that Henry VIII visited Cardinal College in 1527, with his new queen, Catherine of Aragon. Moreover, Phillips relates Hugh Benham's appealing conjecture that since Catherine was a known devotee to the cult of Christ's passion, one of whose emblems was the Crown of Thorns, the Mass may have been written for her; after all, the queen's own emblem was the pomegranate - whose prickly appearance may resemble a crown, and her motto as ‘Not for my crown'.
Whatever its origins, this is a truly magnificent and extravagant festal mass for 6 voices (TMATBB). The first silvery phrases of the ‘Gloria in excelsis Deo' emerge fluently from the tenor's chant, and as the trebles' crystalline threads are gradually fused with the voices below it is as if light from the heavens is gradually steeping the earth. The ‘Qui tollis' reverses this transference; here the open-textured, slow-moving bass and tenor parts, earnest and solemn in tone, are joined by upper voices whose lines aspire aloft. The long-breathed imitation pushes ever onwards, the motifs evolving and the voices entwining. The more homophonic passages are warm and focused, conveying an assurance and faith.
The meticulous clarity of the recording is evident in passages such as the opening of the ‘Credo in unum Deo' where the pairs of voices are astonishingly pristine. Phillips generates compelling forward momentum in this movement, effecting an uplifting crescendo as the texture thickens; after such excitement, the subsequent ‘Et incarnatus est' offers quieter consolations.
Throughout the Mass, the contrasts of timbre are wonderfully defined, and the second ‘Agnus Dei' offers a particularly ravishing arrange of vocal textures and colours, from the rich low resonance of the opening to translucent brilliance of the higher lying episodes. When the two strata converge the result is a thrilling rainbow of sound. ‘Dona nobis pacem' is bright and spirited, a wonderfully joyous conclusion.
The Tallis Scholars reveal and relish the ‘medievalism' of this Mass: its unconstrained profuseness suggests a decorative rather than an expressive splendour, but the sheer grandeur of the architecture and its embellishment - and the infinite variety of texture - makes a heady impact. There is immense vigour within and between the vocal lines, and the vocal sound is one of utmost beauty. The constant fountain of elaborate sound might be overwhelming, were it not for Phillips' discerning craftsmanship.