in: Reviews

April 4, 2011

Tallis Scholars: Chordal Harmonies

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August 20 will mark the four-hundredth anniversary of the death of Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548-1611), by all accounts the greatest Spanish composer of the Renaissance. On Friday, April 1st at St. Paul Church, Cambridge, the Tallis Scholars were heard in a program featuring Victoria’s Requiem Mass of 1603 along with works by his contemporaries, predecessors, and successors.

The first half of the program opened with two works by Victoria’s older contemporary Francisco Guerrero (1528-1599). Chapel master at the cathedral of Seville, his music was widely performed in Latin America as well as in Spain. For the eight-voice Easter motet Regina caeli laetare (Rejoice, Queen of heaven), the singers, five women and five men, were arranged in a single row, with the women placed at either end. Overlapping imitative entries in various combinations of voices resulted in a continuous polyphonic interweaving of the parts rather than antiphonal opposition between two four-voice choirs. Textural contrast was all the more striking at the hushed prayer Ora pro nobis (Pray God for us) sung by only the four upper voice parts. In keeping with its mournful text, Guerrero’s six-voice motet, Heu mihi, Domine (Woe is me, O Lord), was couched in darker tones with chromatic shadings.

Born in 1590 in Malaga, Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla emigrated to Mexico to serve at the cathedral of Puebla from 1622 until his death in 1664. His six-voice setting of the poignant Lamentations of Jeremiah text reserves its most florid contrapuntal flights, colored by expressive dissonances and frequent juxtaposition of natural and sharped cadential notes, for the “inexpressive” Hebrew letters that head each of the three sections. The four-voice setting of Sancta mater, istud agas that followed was once attributed to Josquin des Prez, whose music was well known to Spanish cathedral choirs from the beginning of the sixteenth century. It is actually the work of his contemporary Francisco da Peñalosa (ca. 1470-1528), chapel-master to Ferdinand V. The text consists of stanzas 11 to 14 of the famous Stabat mater dolorosa hymn, a meditation on the Virgin Mary at the Crucifixion. In contrast to the short phrases and chordal harmonies of the works heard in the rest of the program, the influence of late-fifteenth-century Netherlandish polyphony, with its imitative entries and longer contrapuntal lines, was apparent here, declamatory homophony all the more striking when it made its appearance on the words “Crucifixo” and “Iuxta crucem.” Only five singers took part in the performance of this four-voice setting, a welcome tonal contrast that gave increased clarity to individual lines.

All ten singers were on hand for Alonso Lobo’s motet Versa est in luctum (My harp is turned to mourning), composed in 1598 for the funeral of Philip II. Here the frequent suspension dissonances so characteristic of late-sixteenth-century polyphony lent their urgency to a rich contrapuntal fabric in six voices. Next we heard Sebastian de Vivanco’s Magnificat octavi toni (Magnificat on the eighth tone, 1607). The title refers to the plainchant formula in mode 8 (hypomixolydian on G) to which alternate verses of the Annunciation canticle are sung, the other verses being sung in polyphony. The plainchant verses, beautifully intoned by one of the tenors, provided a foil to the chordal magnificence of the eight-voice polyphonic sections.

The signature work on the program, Victoria’s six-voice Requiem was written for the funeral of the Dowager Empress Maria, sister of Philip II and Victoria’s patroness, who died in 1603. In addition to the movements of the Mass for the Dead, it contains an introductory lesson, “Taedet animam meam” (I am weary at heart of my life) from Matins and a funeral motet, “Versa est in luctum cithara mea.” (The same text was heard earlier in the program in the setting by Alonso Lobo.) Built around a plainchant cantus firmus in the second soprano, the largely chordal polyphony reached its emotional highpoint in the Responsory, in sustained chords on the words “Requiem aeternam.”

With their own fortieth anniversary only a couple of years away, the Tallis Scholars under founding director Peter Phillips have long enjoyed a reputation as the “gold standard” among exponents of Renaissance choral music. Over nearly four decades, Phillips has been able to attract singers with beautiful voices and outstanding musicianship and to mold them into an ensemble notable for its impeccable intonation, precise rhythm, and convincing declamation. With concerts around the world and a large and diverse catalog of recordings, the beauty and conviction of their performances have gathered them an appreciative audience for Renaissance choral music that is far from limited to fans of “early music.” If in recent years their vibrant tone has sometimes sounded forced, even strident, particularly in very resonant venues such as the rose- and ivory-tinted marbles of St. Paul Church — and perhaps more so from my vantage point in the third row of the nave — it was nevertheless a thrill to hear this endlessly fascinating music so expertly performed.

Virginia Newes, who now lives in Cambridge, was Associate Professor of Music History and Musicology at the Eastman School of Music.

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