Thomas Tallis: The Lamentations Of Jeremiah (ECM New Series 1341)

Thomas Tallis
The Lamentations Of Jeremiah

David James countertenor
John Potter tenor
Rogers Covey-Crump tenor
Paul Hillier baritone
Michael George bass
Recorded September 1986, All Hallows Church, London
Engineer: Antony Howell

“The joy of our heart is ceased;
our dance is turned into mourning.”
Lamentations of Jeremiah the Prophet

I remember first hearing The Lamentations of Jeremiah of Thomas Tallis (1505-1585) as performed by the Deller Consort on an old Vanguard LP. Needless to say, my fifteen-year-old ears were awestruck by the ache of their eponymous emotion. In the hands (or should I say mouths?) of the Hilliard Ensemble the music of Tallis has become something else entirely. What the Deller recording displayed in brooding sensibility, the Hilliards have matched tenfold in the sheer expanse of their craft and in the ways in which that craft unfurls in a realm of earthly care. Composed during the latter half of the sixteenth century, the Lamentations are of the utmost spiritual refinement. Yet Tallis scholar Paul Doe asserts that the Lamentations “were not conceived as church music at all, but rather for private recreational singing by loyal Catholics.” Nevertheless, their masterful shifts in harmony and register make for a challenging “recreation” to say the least. Tallis has forged a delicate balance between each vocal line, and recreating this balance requires astute attention to many intricacies beyond the printed score. This the Hilliards pull off with dutiful concentration in a fluid and precise performance. The sheer sense of continuity and retrograde motion in these motets lends itself well to the shape and mood of their source texts. Each voice is clearly heard, rising intermittently above the others in slow waves in one of the most stunning examples of polyphony ever composed.

A languid tenor line spins the second setting into a gorgeous tapestry and intensifies the sonic textures. Here, Tallis constructs his voices much like cells: each one seems to subdivide until it develops into a living, breathing organism in its own right. Bodies individuate, shedding skin and emotional excess. In this pollinated space the Hilliards display an almost intuitive control of dynamics, and the way they ease into minor-to-major shifts at the ends of phrases is a perfect example of their ability to restrain at near silence, letting syllables breathe on their own without losing any harmonic tension. And perhaps this is exactly what these cells are: “pure” morphemes building into larger texts that become more recognizable with age. By the end they have successfully rendered the words of God’s subjects, who themselves interpret audible impulses of spiritual awareness into concrete blocks of meaning to be transcribed and notated by the faithful composer living through the religico-musical gesture alone. In this manner Tallis caresses the text, laying his hands upon the words with every note, and in doing so lays them also upon the listener. For this recording of the Lamentations the Hilliards have used a score tuned to modern pitch—which requires a deeper, more demanding sound palette—avoiding the pitfalls that transposed renditions often create when breaching into soprano territory. The countertenor is ideally suited to the haunting quality of the work, and in this regard David James paints a lower ceiling toward which the other voices may waft.

After these juggernauts come Salvator mundi and O sacrum convivium, two shorter motets that pave the way for the monumental Mass for Four Voices. In these pieces the alto line becomes more than a thread, but a thick, heavy cord that anchors the music down with its gravid faith. The music climbs and waits in the rafters to breathe in preparation for the Mass-ive descent to follow. Where the Lamentations are a tightly meshed macramé, in the Mass they resemble a lattice through which the wind blows freely. The voices are like water caught in a cove—sometimes they crash against the rocks; others they trickle between them, eddying in eroded pockets, splitting in infinitesimal directions. As such, they remain divinely ordered, flowing to the rhythm of some invisible articulation that can only be implied through the sounds of the sea, the trickle of a stream, the rush of a geyser, the tranquil violence of a waterfall.

This album represents a collection of music that has been “left behind,” having survived centuries of upheaval. In order to be heard and experienced, it must be transmitted from paper to voice, from materiality to intangibility, from the mundane to the sacred, only to be reinscribed onto a compact disc and sold as a commodity. Either way, the music outlives its creator. From the opening strains of the Lamentations to the harmonic gumbo of the closing Absterge Domine, we are treated to a veritable feast of sounds upon which the mind and body may gorge in abstract mastication. The recording is flawless—with just enough sheen from the highs and a touch of earthly muddiness in the lows—and couched in just the right amount of reverb. David James never fails to amaze throughout, while the two tenors (and Rogers Covey-Crump in particular) outdo themselves in the Mass. Like a freshly broken geode, the music they create surprises with its inner wealth. Its intense complexity and dissonant grinds make its moments of resolution all the more breathtaking. Those unsettling harmonies shake the listener down to the feet, underscoring the fallibility of the body. They also characterize the turbulent era in which Tallis lived, marking humanity at the center of music that is otherwise ecclesiastical. In listening to this disc one loses all sense of time and place, and in doing so begins to latch on to whatever individual voices are discernible from this beautifully ordered cacophony. The sheer variety of color shifts is beyond comprehension: it seems inconceivable that one could sit at a piano or organ and pluck these sounds from the ether. It is a music of dreams, of visions, and I daresay a music of divine inspiration. As such it lays itself bare as a supremely constructed object, though like any object it can be used to create magic. With all the formative elements nested in this world—earth, water, wind, air, fire—this music reminds us that, to that list, we must also add: light.

<< Thomas Demenga: Bach/Holliger (ECM 1340 NS)
>> Christy Doran: Red Twist & Tuned Arrow (ECM 1342)

5 thoughts on “Thomas Tallis: The Lamentations Of Jeremiah (ECM New Series 1341)

  1. Yes, the Mass is a rare beauty in which Rogers really shines!
    One of my favourite Hilliard recordings, and this review is extraordinary 🙂

  2. An extremely lyrical and evocative exploration of an extraordinary album. This is actually the record that kicked off my love affair with all things ECM. I remember buying this record in 1984 and loving the monotone cover of almost nothing (but then of course almost everything – what can be more profound, more pagan than when the land runs out and the ocean begins?) as well as being moved beyond reason by the lament; that ‘cri de coeur’ that occurs at about 7:18 where the singer nakedly emerges with the single word, “Jerusalem”.

    What I also loved were the wonderfully effusive liner notes supplied by Wilfred Mellers in which he talked about this music being ‘unlike the quietude of a cabbage.” When has a cabbage ever been evoked in this way before? I still remember chuckling at that line…

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