On July 17, in Jordan Hall, the Tallis Scholars under the direction of Peter Phillips presented a program called “The Genius of Tomás Luis de Victoria.” It was a lovely program of music by one of the most brilliant of the late sixteenth-century composers that also, and perhaps inadvertently, demonstrated the positive and negative aspects of a particular type of musical interpretation.
For over three decades, the Tallis Scholars has explored the vast world of Renaissance and Medieval vocal music, reinterpreting the works of well known composers and shining light on that of lesser or unknown composers. The ensemble’s signature approach is simply—and nearly perfectly— to sing the words and the notes, honing a crystalline sound, but allowing the design of the works themselves to be the main device of musical expression. There is a lot to be said for that approach; the works they perform contain compelling melodies, and usually involve highly complex, varied polyphony and contrapuntal sophistication.
These musical characteristics reach stellar heights in the works of Victoria. While some of his contemporaries wrote pieces that could sound staid and cold—the sonic equivalent of luminous yet motionless stained-glass painting—he used the various compositional techniques of the time to create subtly sublime emotionality and discreetly passionate acts of word-painting. These expressive devices are built in to the music so integrally that the Tallis Scholars’ method of just giving them beautiful voice is often all that is needed to bring them out. Victoria’s stunning five-voice Dum complerentur is filled with soaring lines and powerful blasts of homophony that paint the mood of the text with broad strokes, and the ensemble did a brilliant job of staying out of the way of the music, allowing it to sing for itself. Similarly, the sorrowfully austere textures and keening long tones that inhabit Victoria’s Lamentations for Holy Friday, the first three of which were performed on this program, needed no extra push to communicate the sadness in the words.
There were many times, however, where the music cried out for a stronger interpretive voice. In his Missa O magnum mysterium, Victoria sets the words “et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis” using quick, bright gestures. This is a compositional choice that communicates a distinctly personal take on these words; rather than setting them slowly and prayer-like, as so many other composers did, Victoria is cheerfully shouting to the listener how wonderful such peace in Earth would actually be. It is a moment that can allow musicians to channel raw happiness, but only if they let themselves truly emote, something the Scholars do not typically do. In general, the joy in words and phrases like “hosanna” and “et resurrexit” or in the “alleluia” at the end of the motet O magnum mysterium could have been communicated much more effectively through crisper diction and more energetic expression.
The most effective and, in a way, most telling part of the evening was the performance of Victoria’s Salve Regina at the end of the first half of the program. For this antiphonal work the ensemble divided itself into a four-part SSAB quartet and a six-part SATB ensemble. The one-on-a-part quartet delivered the most character and intensity of the whole evening, largely because the interpretive personality of each singer was allowed to shine. In contrast, the six-part choir, with the soprano and occasionally the tenor doubled, produced a more homogenous, less immediate sound that is more in keeping with the Scholars’ overall aesthetic. The contrast itself was not only illuminating but also very satisfying in that it brought both musical variety and structural clarity to the work.
In true Tallis Scholars tradition, the program ended with two works by a far lesser-known contemporary of Victoria, Sebastián de Vivanco, another Spanish composer. Although his Sicut lilium and his Magnificat Octavi Toni do not have nearly the expressive variety of Victoria’s music, they do contain enticing rhythms and craggier vocal lines that express the composer’s musical ideas in an engagingly direct way. As expected, the Tallis Scholars did a beautiful job of communicating those ideas with focus and skill of the highest order.
Tom Schnauber is a Boston-based composer and is currently serving as chair of the Performance Arts Department at Emmanuel College. He holds a Ph.D. in composition and Theory from the University of Michigan.