Isaac is an often overlooked composer. Born in 1450, he was contemporary with greats such as Josquin des Pres, but vastly overshadowed by such contemporaries, even though during his lifetime, Isaac was often set in such company as a matter of course and conversation. Scholarship on Isaac is almost exclusively a German preserve, according to Phillips, which makes him lesser known in the English-speaking world, save to musicologists and die-hard fans. He was court composer to Emperor Maximilian I in Vienna in the late fifteenth/early sixteenth centuries. He lived in Vienna and Florence much of his life, tending to prefer Florence in the end. He died in 1517.
--Missa de Apostolis--
This mass is based on Gregorian chants taken from the Feast of the Apostles. The mass alternates between chant and polyphony through, as was the style in German composition at the time. The Credo was not set here, as the custom at the time was not to include it. Bouncing back and forth between melody and chant can be disconcerting, but Isaac pulls it off with great skill.
Some of Isaac's motets, according to Phillips, have a grandeur no other composer of the time could equal. `Optime pastor' and `Virgo prudentissima' are very strong celebratory motets; `Tota pulchra es' and `Regina caeli laetare' are Marian motets; `Resurrexi et adhuc tecum sum' is a setting for Easter Sunday. There is wide variation in voice-parts among the motets, but the influence of chant is unmistakable.
Being internationally acclaimed, the Tallis Scholars' CDs typically present their commentary and texts in English, French, German and Italian (together with any Latin texts); that is true of this disc. The cover art also typically represents visual arts contemporary with the compositions - here it is a portrait of Emperor Maximilian I, by Albrecht Durer, a rough contemporary with Isaac. For some strange reason, the page 1 of the liner notes seems to be missing. The play list is repeated in Italian, French, and German, but the English list, and perhaps a few paragraphs in English notes, are missing.
--The Tallis Scholars--
The Tallis Scholars, a favourite group of mine since the first time I heard them decades ago, are a group dedicated to the performance and preservation of the best of this type of music. A choral group of exceptional ability, I have been privileged to see them many times in public, and at almost every performance, their singing seems almost like a spiritual epiphany for me, one that defies explanation in words. Directed by Peter Phillips, the group consists of a small number of male and female singers who have trained themselves well to their task.
Their recordings are of a consistent quality that deserve more than five stars; this particular disc of rare pieces by Heinrich Isaac is worthy of a place on the shelf of anyone who loves choral music, liturgical music or Gregorian chant, classical music generally, or religious music. It is remarkable, both in composition and performance. The original recording was made in 1991 in the church of St. Peter and St. Paul, Norfolk, one of their favourite recording sites.