This disc came as something of a surprise to me. The Tallis Scholars are justly famous for making Renaissance music, familiar and otherwise, known through concerts and recordings. As a devotee of their work, I did a double-take when I first saw the cover of this disc. Surely they weren't offering all those old but admittedly overdone chestnuts that we see in new recordings year in and year out?
Actually, they weren't. Peter Phillips and ten of his singers have chosen a programme that reflects Christmas as the people of the Renaissance (and Early Baroque) might have seen it: simple chants, piquantly harmonised; Marian motets, and carols from the European mainland that have survived to this day, albeit greatly altered by other musical cultures. What emerges is thus wonderfully different than most other Christmas records: it is 'Christmassy' but not in the way we are used to.
On the whole, although about 54 minutes long, the disc is therefore very enjoyable. The Tallis Scholars hallmark sound quality is there, taut and powerful yet sensitive and appropriate for the music. Phillips has prepared many of the pieces himself using various authentic sources, and as I have said it is a delectable feast of musical gems: amongst the early works, "Angelus ad virginem" and "There is no Rose" are the most immediately arresting, whilst of the four "Ave Maria" motets, Victoria's setting is particularly rapt and works well on the ear whether you listen at Christmastide or not. Finally, there are some delightful arrangements of well-known European carols, sung in German: "Es ist ein Ros entsprungen" will be known to many as "A great and mighty wonder." The last track, "Zion hort die Wachter singen," is presented with the harmonies of both Michael Praetorius and J. S. Bach, bringing the programme to a wonderful close.
Although a lot of these works are repetitive (they are, after all, not much different than the hymns sung at Christmas in this day and age), Phillips does his best to maintain interest by deploying the singers in various ways; hence there are solo verses and passages for solo quartets in addition to the use of different soloists for each verse.
In short, this is a genuinely worthwhile record to get hold of if Christmas lists are looming and ideas are none as to what will make an original and unusual present. Warmly recommended!