in: Reviews

December 15, 2013

Tallis Scholars at Forty

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A nearly full house braved oncoming snow Saturday night to hear The Tallis Scholars, directed by Peter Phillips, in a concert of “Renaissance Music for the Holiday Season” at St. Paul Church in Harvard Square. A favorite with audiences worldwide, the vocal group, comprising ten singers and conductor, presented a program centered on music by the Spanish composer Tomás Luis de Victoria but extending to a work by the Austrian Romantic Bruckner. Motets by another Spaniard, Francisco Guerrero, and the French composer Philippe Verdelot filled out the program. The group, whose name refers to the English Renaissance composer Thomas Tallis, has always specialized in early music while performing and commissioning occasional new works as well.

The concert was part of the Boston Early Music Festival’s 2013–14 concert season. In remarks that preceded the second half of the concert, Kathleen Fay, executive director of BEMF, proudly related that the Tallis Scholars, now in its fortieth year, had performed for BEMF annually since the establishment of the organization’s concert series in 1989 (25 years in all, counting an initial season in which BEMF was a co-sponsor). Fay then read a proclamation by outgoing Boston mayor Thomas Menino declaring December 14, 2013, “Tallis Scholars Day” by virtue of the group’s long relationship to the city. It was gratifying to hear this explicit and official recognition of the importance of music to Boston’s culture and economy. (The question of whether TS Day was also to be observed in Cambridge, where the event actually took place, was not addressed.)

A pre-concert conversation between Phillips and Boston College music professor Michael Noone similarly focused on the group’s commercial success, which Phillips attributed in part to early exploitation of the new medium of the CD audio recording. Curiously, much of the conversation echoed points made in David Weininger’s article about the Tallis Scholar’s in yesterday’s Boston Globe. Unconsidered in either discussion were the underlying reasons for the popularity of the group, which, as Phillips related, filled St. Paul’s Cathedral in London for a performance earlier this year, not to mention venues across Europe and North America, as well as in Australia and New Zealand.

Clearly, however, the Tallis Scholars’ success with audiences is not merely the product of effective marketing. This listener was impressed more than usual by the sheer sound of the group. Perhaps it was only due to the exceptionally fine seat offered a reviewer, but I had the impression that the group’s present incarnation, which includes quite a few younger singers, performs more strongly, in terms of both volume and diction, than I recall from concerts of years past. And although it has always been hard to find significant technical faults in the Tallis Scholars’ performances, this one struck me as even more polished than usual. It betrayed no sign of coming near the end of a year that will, by Phillips’s reckoning, have included no fewer than 99 performances—and, presumably, almost as many plane trips, many of them across oceans.

Singing is a physically demanding activity, and the sheer stamina of the group (and its director) would be remarkable even were it not also accompanied by exceptional musicality. Emblematic of the latter was the unfailingly beautiful phrasing at cadences. Where lesser choirs tend to cheat the final note of a phrase, clipping it in the hurry to breathe or to get on to the next passage, the Tallis Scholars, singing as one, make the type of infinitesimal relaxation that eloquently rounds off the concluding sentence or paragraph, and which distinguishes a routine performance from an elevated one.

Many in the audience, to judge from overheard conversations, are aficionados of Renaissance choral music if not active singers of it. Still, I sensed that the most spontaneous, unbridled applause was for the two most easily accessible numbers on the program: Bruckner’s “Ave Maria” and a setting of Blake’s “The Lamb” (1982) by John Tavener, sung as an encore in memory of the recently deceased composer. I say this as no reflection on either performers or listeners, for both works were sung impeccably. The Tavener was particularly beautiful, both its tonal and its non-tonal or dissonant harmonies being sung with touching purity.

But I suspect, in view of the enthusiastic applause and acclamations at the end of the concert, that many failed to notice that this was an understated and somewhat puzzling program. Despite the titular reference to holiday music, the selections included nothing for the Christmas season, having been composed originally for occasions ranging from Easter to the Siege of Florence. The program notes pointed to the Marian associations of some of the works, but only three were actually addressed to the Virgin (a fourth involved Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary,” usually identified as Mary Cleophas).

The major work on the program, Victoria’s Missa Gaudeamus, is not frequently performed, probably because of its unusual structure: it is a so-called paraphrase mass, based on an earlier motet by Cristóbal de Morales, but it is also to some degree a cantus firmus mass of a somewhat peculiar sort. A single phrase of Gregorian chant, from the introit “Gaudeamus omnes,” is repeated over and over in each of the mass’s five movements, which thus become, in effect, contrapuntal variations on the recurring melody.

The use of these archaic techniques gives the music a quality rather different from the almost Baroque clarity and expressive rhetoric that make other works of the composer so popular with modern audiences. This mass therefore calls for concentrated listening, and the absence of any strong contrasts can require patience even when hearing a performance as polished as this one (in an actual mass, of course, the movements would have been separated by various liturgical actions). It was nevertheless thrilling to hear the sustained notes of the cantus firmus in the final “Agnus Dei,” soaring above the fray in the second soprano part.

The clear, strong sound of two sopranos doubling on that line is a distinctive trademark of the Tallis Scholars. That it is probably an anachronism—such a part would originally have been sung by a boy or an adult man—is immaterial, given how beautifully it always sounds. Yet the use of that sound not only in this composition of 1576—written by a Spaniard working in Rome—but in music as diverse as the earlier Verdelot motets and Bruckner’s “Ave Maria” does raise interesting questions. Is it, fundamentally, this type of sound, rather than deeper aspects of the music, that so enraptures the Tallis Scholars’ audiences?

Phillips explained to Weininger that his founding of the group was in part a reaction to the vibrato-rich massed choral singing that was prevalent forty years ago. The “straight” vocal production employed by the Tallis Scholars, although vapid when poorly executed, can be almost literally piercing when done as well as it is by Phillips’s singers and heard up close. Its visceral impact can be harrowingly expressive when, in a work like the Bruckner, it is combined with the type of dynamic inflections that we now associate with the Romantic era.

I heard some of the same as well in the opening work on the program, Victoria’s “Dum complerentur.” This Pentecost motet comes much closer than the mass to the rhetorical style usually associated with the composer. Here listeners doubtless responded to the expressiveness of the performance, not merely to its basic sound. Yet I sensed the slightest reticence in the applause for the earlier works by Verdelot and Guerrero. In the pre-concert conversation, Phillips described it as his “mission” or “calling” to reveal such little-known musicians as “great composers.” In the case of Verdelot, I can’t say that he succeeded, though this is not through any fault of the performance.

Verdelot, when mentioned at all today, is described as one of the inventors of the Italian madrigal. His Marian motet “Beata es,” which opened the second half, provided a sharp contrast to the works by Victoria. Verdelot’s less predictable polyphony vaguely resembles that of his older contemporary Josquin des Prez, and I was glad to hear the contrast here and in his “Sint dicte grates Christo,” although the latter did not, to my ears, achieve the drama promised by Phillips’s prefatory remarks.

Could this be this because the work was not, in fact, written within the Florentine republic while under siege by imperial troops? The Grove biography of the composer by H. Colin Slim casts doubt on the idea that Verdelot was actually in the city, which was soon to be restored to its Medici tyrants. Be that as it may, Renaissance composers did not typically express their own thoughts or feelings in music. Phillips invited us to imagine hearing it performed in Florence itself, shortly before the city’s capitulation, but for me this type of historicist listening does not make the music itself any more or less moving. If, in any case, the composition indeed contains the “colorful chromaticisms and dramatic harmonic shifts” promised by Alexandra Coghlan’s program note, Phillips did not particularly bring them out—though such things are not to be expected in music from as early as the seige years of 1529–30.

I was more impressed by the two concluding compositions by Guerrero, an older contemporary of Victoria who flourished at mid-century and, unlike the latter, worked primarily in his native Spain. Perhaps that explains the conservative style of both motets, which lack the anticipations of Baroque tonality and musical rhetoric characteristic of Victoria.

“Usquequo, Domine,” a setting of the penitential Psalm 13, is an appropriately solemn work that nevertheless revealed some extraordinary sonorities under Phillips’s direction. The final “Maria Magdalene et altera Maria,” as Phillips explained, narrates the discovery of the empty tomb by the two Marys, who are then greeted by a vision of the risen Jesus. That this made for a vivid ending to the program was not due to the “scalic embellishments” mentioned in the program notes—a so-called madrigalism that was not a significant part of Guerrero’s musical language here. Rather, extraordinary intensity was achieved particularly through a build-up to the beautiful sustaining of the line “Jesum quem quaeritis.” Coming at the end of a long program of mostly slow music, its moving execution demonstrated the consummate mastery of both the singers and their director.

David Schulenberg is a harpsichordist and author of Music of the Baroque and The Keyboard Music of J. S. Bach. He teaches at Wagner College in New York City. His website is here.

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