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Choral Nirvana from The Tallis Scholars


In the world of choral music, it is difficult to find a group more highly respected than the Tallis Scholars, founded  in 1973 by Peter Phillips, who remains its director.   In  more than three decades, the group has come to be known as one of the foremast exponents of Renaissance music.

The acoustically-sympathetic and gracious setting of St Paul’s Church, Cambridge, is a perfect venue for this group and the music they sing, and a full house on April 3 greeted the group with enthusiasm, which was immediately proved justified by world-class choral singing.

The thesis of this fascinating program was the connection between Renaissance polyphony and Baroque music, the progression from one to the other, and here the point was made vividly, compellingly, and with great intelligence and insight.

For most of the evening, the music was sung by four sopranos, one countertenor, one alto, two tenors, and two basses, with the exception, in the second half, of several pieces in which Phillips used only eight voices.  Anyone inclined to think that early choral music can be tedious should be treated to Phillips’ sense of dynamics, his ability to delineate structure, and  his uncanny ability to bring to life the tone-painting of this fascinating music.  Impeccable tuning in the group makes especially the final chords of many anthems unforgettably compelling.

I recall having heard the group about 15 years ago, when I found the sound a touch dry and emotionally distant, but either their style or my ears have changed, and Friday evening’s concert was engaging on every level of professionalism and commitment.  If the lead soprano was  a touch harsh in the first piece, she quickly blended in for the rest of the program, when ensemble was paramount.  Phillips understands “the art that conceals art,” and he gets out of the way, letting the music speak gloriously for itself..

There were moments of surpassing beauty: in the “Benedictus” of the Lassus Mass Missa Bel’Amfitrit’altera. At the moment of the Benedictus where the text “Benedictus qui venit in nominee Domine Deus” (“Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord”) is heard, the sound of the three second choirmen was as sublime and hushed as I can imagine any choral singing could be, and the second tenor, Simon Wall, brought the same sense of radiance to the Psalm tones of the concluding work on the program, a Magnificat of Heironymous Praetorius.  It was a joy to marvel in the vivid depiction of the texts brought to life by the music, in the contrasts between blocks of homophonic sound  and the complex interweavings of polyphony.

Two discoveries for this listener were the Lamentations of Alonso Lobo, and Nesciens Mater by Jean Mouton, two pieces  meant to be sung together, and made fascinating, as the program put it, by “stunning effects of canonic virtuosity.” Orlando Gibbons’ masterpiece, O Clap Your Hands, could have been conceived more spaciously in two beats to the measure instead of four, but the texture and color revealed by Phillips’ interpretation nonetheless brought the music to life.

A standing ovation brought one encore, Purcell’s short and probing Hear My Prayer, sung to perfection,  and we headed out into the night with the happy thought that the Tallis Scholars return each year to the Boston area.

Brian E. Jones was music director and organist at Trinity Church, Copley Square, Boston, from 1984-2004, He has held interim positions locally at Old South Church and Memorial Church at Harvard and also was director of the Dedham Choral Society for many years.

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