As hateful and usually untrue as most "Best of" collections are, this one is the real thing. You actually do get two hours and 20 minutes of Renaissance music performed so exquisitely, so correctly, and so passionately that it's as if an entire era in music makes itself understood through these CDs. The Tallis Scholars are as good as it gets in this repertoire. In addition to getting Allegri's gorgeous Miserere, you'll find Thomas Tallis's 40-part (40!) Spem in alium, some wonderfully weird and dissonant Responsories by Gesualdo, Palestrina's Missa Papae Marcelli (the "how-to" piece of the Renaissance popes, who demanded that the words be understood), and various other works. This stuff is like a finely woven tapestry and should be listened to bits at a time--it's amazingly rich and worth it. --Robert Levine
Once you accept "The Best of the Renaissance" for what it is - "Best Sacred Vocal Music of the 16th Century" - you can better enjoy its remarkable assemblage of High Renaissance polyphony. The first disc in particular is quite astonishing. The Scholars lead off with their signature performance of Allegri's "Miserere" - actually a Baroque-era composition in Renaissance "learned style." The Scholars brilliantly convey the "call-and-response" effect of dual choirs through exquisitely crafted acoustics. Turn this one up, turn off the lights, close your eyes, and you're in the Sistine Chapel!
The Scholars follow "Miserere" with an equally impressive performance of a work by their namesake Thomas Tallis - the 40-voice motet "Spem in alium." If "Miserere" hasn't overwhelmed your senses, this one will.
Two virtuoso Mass cycles follow: William Byrd's "Mass for Five Voices" and Josquin's "Missa Pange lingua." The former conveys a sublime, otherworldly beauty, while the latter is a superior example of the style of pervasive imitation that Josquin and his contemporaries pioneered.
The selections on Disc One are so impressive that Disc Two disappoints by comparison. The second set is dominated by two composers I never quite warmed to: Carlo Gesualdo and Giovanni Pierluigi Palestrina. Gesualdo was better known for his chromatic, genre-busting madrigals. His "Tenebrae Responses for Holy Thursday" are by contrast quite pleasing, but it's odd to hear sacred music written by a man who killed his wife and her lover. Palestrina's music achieves a sort of static beauty, but lacks forward motion. His "Missa Papae Marcelli" allegedly "saved" sacred polyphony, but arguably watered down the genre in its attempt to appease papal demands for simpler music.
The highlight of Disc 2 is Josquin's lovely "Ave Maria," a motet that provides yet another example of the Franco-Flemish composer's mastery of canonic forms.
"The Best of the Renaissance" expertly compiles the Tallis Scholars' best performances. Those looking for a comprehensive overview of the music of the Renaissance should be aware of its limitations, however.