Between 1560 and 1569, Thomas Tallis set the first two chapters from the Biblical Book of Lamentations; a set of laments to mourn the destruction/siege of Jerusalem. He wrote these in the midst of the religious chaos in Tudor England when many Roman Catholics were mourning their depletion of the Catholic religion to the rise of Protestantism.
The original Hebrew language text of Lamentations Chapter 1 is an acrostic, where each biblical verse commences with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet. In each of the two pieces which together form the Lamentations, Tallis imitates this trick, preceding his music for the biblical verse (in Latin) with an ornate setting of the Hebrew letter – Aleph and Beth in Lamentation 1, Ghimel, Daleth and Heth in Lamentation 2. The effect is remarkably peaceful, creating a kind of spiritual ante-room in which listeners can cleanse their consciousness from external distractions before the Latin text is sung.
The best recording
Pro Cantione Antiqua
There are so many outstandingly proficient choirs performing early music nowadays that it is easy to forget what an enormous contribution the English group Pro Cantione Antiqua made in its heyday to the development of performance standards in Renaissance repertoire. This 1984 recording acts as a sharp reminder. With one voice to each vocal part, the five singers strike a virtually perfect balance between individual expressivity and the need to blend together as a coherent unit.
The ‘Aleph’ section in Lamentation 1 is a good example of their corporate sensitivity. Plangently launched by countertenor Charles Brett, it unfolds with sensual fluidity, each voice distinctive yet discreet as it enters, and with a smooth, subtle dynamic swell as the different strands of melody combine together. A marginal thinning of tone produces a touching vulnerability at ‘Plorans ploravit in nocte’ (‘She weepeth sore in the night’), and the ‘Jerusalem’ coda is appropriately penitential, while maintaining a firm, inclusive balance between the voice parts.
Lamentation 2 opens more anxiously, Tallis’s questioning harmonies etched out clearly by the singers’ pin-point pitching, and a sharpening of consonants at ‘Migravit Iuda propter afflictionem’ (‘Judah is gone into captivity because of affliction’).
This edginess persists throughout the second movement, which has a darker, more anguished feeling to it than in rival recordings. The coda is implacable in its plea for a return to godliness, with telling contributions from basses Michael George and Brian Etheridge. The recorded sound neatly abets Pro Cantione Antiqua’s searching view of the music.
Three other great recordings
Erato 562 2302
With one singer to a part, and a dry acoustic, this 1986 recording is the most intimate available version of the Lamentations. Although there are beautiful moments, the atmosphere is generally ascetic and inward-looking, a soul-searching rather than crowd-pleasing interpretation. As such it has unique insights to offer: the five singers differ markedly in timbre, and you can follow their contributions with absorbing clarity. It is part of a two-disc Tallis anthology that is itself hugely recommendable.
Clerks of the Choir of New College, Oxford
In his 38 years as the director of New College Choir, Oxford, Edward Higginbottom made many excellent recordings and this, from 1995, is one of the finest. With two voices to a part, the choir produces an exceptionally mellifluous sound, assisted by the glowing acoustic of the Abbaye de Valloires in France. Higginbottom’s spacious tempos facilitate an interpretation rich in expressivity. If you find the one-singer-to-a-part approach of rival versions a touch austere, this is the ideal alternative.
Theatre of Voices
Harmonia Mundi HMU907154
It can easily seem as though the Lamentations are the sole preserve of small, all-male, English groups of singers. Here, again from 1995, is a recording which challenges that assumption. Made in California with a mixed-voice choir of 16 singers, it shows that women’s voices fit perfectly well in Tallis’s masterpiece, although he would not have expected to hear them. Conductor Paul Hillier directs an interpretation where tenderness and compassion are the watchwords. His all-Tallis programme includes a clutch of pieces for violin consort, providing added interest.
And one to avoid…
Choir of King’s College, Cambridge
Of the three Choir of King’s College, Cambridge recordings of the Lamentations available, the one conducted by David Willcocks in 1966 is the earliest and least satisfactory. The main drawback is the large amount of vibrato used by the singers, which both blurs Tallis’s part-writing and sounds eccentrically old-fashioned. The engineering doesn’t help much either: microphones are placed very close, creating a claustrophobic atmosphere.