A large audience on Sunday at St. Paul’s Church in Cambridge heard Boston Early Music Festival’s presentation of an exquisite performance by The Tallis Scholars, directed by Peter Phillips. One could immediately hear why this ensemble is legendary for its flawless intonation, blend, transparency, and sheer beauty of sound as they performed works by four Renaissance composers and a contemporary one. The singers were sopranos Janet Coxwell, Amy Haworth, Amy Wood, and Rebecca Hickey, altos Patrick Craig and Caroline Trevor, tenors Mark Dobell and George Pooley, and basses Rob Macdonald and Tim Scott Whiteley.
Two settings of the Magnificat bookended the program, which opened with the Magnificat Octavi Toni by Sebastián de Vivanco (ca. 1551-1622). Vivanco was one of the foremost Spanish composers of his day, but today is unaccountably adumbrated by his contemporaries Victoria, Ceballos, and Guerrero. This Magnificat is in the customary alternatim style: a solo tenor intoned plainsong verses in alternation with choral contrapuntal ones. The chorus’s sound was generally bright, forward, and virtually vibrato-free, but it never verged on harshness. One telling instance, however, of the use of a gentler tone was at Et misericordia … (And his mercy is on them that fear him), reinforcing the effect of the composer’s thinning of the texture. The Gloria Patri provided an exciting, climactic culmination to the performance. It should be noted, too, that the performers soldiered on even when, hardly a minute into the work, St. Paul’s heating system began to contribute an unfortunate percussion part that lasted some minutes.
Orlandus Lassus (ca. 1532-1594) was officially of the Franco-Flemish school but was unusually cosmopolitan for his day. His motet Osculetur me (Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth), text from the “Song of Solomon,” clearly shows the influence of the Venetian polychoral style. The double-choir scoring is characterized by much imitative writing and delicious antiphonal exchanges. The musicians skillfully communicated the composer’s vivid word-painting, particularly near the end with the “languorous broadening of the texture and swooning melody” (I quote the outstanding program notes of Alexandra Coghlan) at memores uberum tuorum (remembering your breasts) and the plainspoken conclusion recti diligunt te (freely rendered as “all those with any sense love you”).
Lassus’s Missa Osculetur me made a logical successor on the program. This is a parody mass, i.e., one that borrows musical material from another work, in this case, the motet just heard. Of the composer’s nearly sixty mass settings, only three are in double-choir format, perhaps due to the greater demands of fusing the two divergent styles of antiphony and polyphony. But in this work Lassus achieves the feat brilliantly. The performance had innumerable felicitous details, of which I offer a mere sampling: the fugitive syncopations of visibilium omnium et invisibilium; the emphatic, thrilling descendit de caelis (He came down from heaven); the intimate Crucifixus, given to only one of the two choirs; and the wondrous, virtuosic flourishes at cuius regni non erit finis (and his kingdom will have no end). The Sanctus was interestingly restrained, awed rather than proclamatory, until the dancelike exuberance of the Osanna. The Agnus Dei features sublime imitative writing, and The Tallis Scholars provided an unsurpassed paradigm of the execution. One vocal line or one choir would make a statement before tapering off to yield gracefully to its successor. The ineffably sweet final B major chord was like a benison; the audience held a rapt silence for several moments before applauding.
The works of the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt (b. 1935) shows the clear influence of Renaissance and Russian Orthodox choral literature as well as plainchant while utilizing a minimalist technique of repetitions and silences. I am the True Vine features disjunct phrase fragments and numerous silences. What drama there is comes from changes of texture: alternation of sopranos and altos with tenors and basses, interpolated soprano and bass notes high above or deep below the other parts, and long pedal points later in the piece. This was for me a more intellectually interesting than immediately likeable work, but the musicians rendered it with admirable fidelity to Pärt’s ascetic style.
The second Pärt work performed is far less typical of his signature sound. A Tribute to Caesar deals with the encounter of Jesus with the Pharisees who have conferred on “how they might entangle him in his talk.” This work contains fleshed-out phrases and richer harmony, with the pleasure of many delicious dissonances that resolve into consonance. As always, the singers’ perfect tuning made this aspect especially telling. They also underlined the drama of the Pharisees’ inquiries as well as Christ’s seeing through them immediately. After Jesus delivers his now-famous quotation, “Render therefore unto Caesar …”, his questioners marvel before departing. The audience’s marveling was palpable as well.
Next was a votive antiphon by the ensemble’s namesake, Thomas Tallis (ca. 1505-1585). Likely written during the reign of Henry VIII, Sancte Deus is scored for soprano, alto, and tenor, and is notable for its striking harmonies, particularly some jarring false relations, and its word-painting. The musicians were exemplary in both features, including a powerful accent on damnare and a long, expressive melisma on crucem.
The concert concluded with another Magnificat setting, quite different from Vivanco’s. The Magnificat Quinti Toni of Hieronymus Praetorius (1560-1629) inserts two Christmas carols, in mixed German and Latin, into the Magnificat text and thus, Ms. Coghlan notes, “the promise of the annunciation is fulfilled in the miracle of the Virgin Birth, just as the Renaissance textures of Vivanco find themselves fulfilled and transformed in the proto-Baroque music of Praetorius.” The piece opens, chronology notwithstanding, with the carol Joseph lieber, Joseph mein lulling the infant Jesus with gentle rocking rhythm. We get merely two lines of the Magnificat text before In dulci jubilo arrives. The Tallis Scholars made this carol a strong contrast to the other, giving its triple meter an exultant schwung even in Praetorius’s rich and florid setting. Here too there was accomplished word-painting vividly realized, e.g., the breathless scattering of the haughty in every direction and the sudden shift into triple meter, whose circular feeling represents infinity, at et in saecula saeculorum (world without end.).
These days, I regret to say, standing ovations have become so commonplace as to be nearly meaningless, but the one given The Tallis Scholars was richly earned. Their one encore was a repetition of the Vivanco Magnificat, this time without the heating system’s collaboration, partly for the sake of the audience and partly for WGBH-FM which recorded the concert for broadcast on December 21 and December 25, both at 7:00pm. The Tallis Scholars celebrate their 40th anniversary in 2013, under their founder Peter Phillips; this listener fervently hopes they will celebrate a great many more such anniversaries et in saecula saeculorum.