Hordes of fans filled St. Paul’s Parish Cambridge’s cavernous church for Tallis Scholars annual visit sponsored by the Boston Early Music Festival. Reviews of this group, in this journal and elsewhere, are invariably unqualified raves, and justifiably so. In nearly 2,000 concerts, this British ensemble has done a great deal to put sacred vocal music of the Renaissance on the early music map.
Founded in 1973 by Peter Phillips (who spoke with great charm in the pre-concert talk), the Scholars have their own label, Gimell Records, set up by Phillips and Steve Smith in 1980 solely to record the ensemble, and in their 40th-anniversary year they were welcomed into the Gramophone “Hall of Fame” by public vote. They have won myriad awards for their recordings. Phillips explains their sound in an interview in “Sonograma:”
I want my singers to sing without too much vibrato, what we say is straight, but not too straight because then it´s boring, though, but straight is…the tuning is good because polyphony is very complicated music, I mean, if the details are not clear, then the piece is spoilt, the public can´t hear what the details are.
I think one change in the time we´ve been singing renaissance music is that we sing probably louder than we did, and I think we learnt how to sing more strongly while still not singing with a big vibrato, in an operatic style, I think that´s what we learnt in the last twenty years.
In the 16th century the singers did not have trained voices, they just sang like you or I would sing; that means that probably they sang quite quietly and most of the music that we sing was written for small buildings, not for big cathedrals but for chapels and law courts and so and so. I think if we heard a performance from the 16th century we would be very surprised how they are just singing amongst themselves. We don´t do that at all, we stand, so the public can see us all and we sing really strong into the public, into big buildings, very big buildings.
In his pre-concert talk, Phillips further demystified Tallis’s sound, explaining how in this music, minor thirds are tuned sharp and major thirds are a tiny bit flat.
Friday’s program, entitled “Gaudeamus!” featured music of William Byrd (ca. 1540-1623), Josquin des Prés (ca. 1450-1521), and the mystery composer, Edmund Turges (b. ca. 1450), whose only surviving piece of music is the Magnifcat. Nothing is known about him. Even his name is subject to debate, (might it be Sturgis?) but, as the program notes tell us, “together with composers like Robert Fayrfax and John Browne, he formed part of an early flourishing of English polyphony epitomized by the music of the Eton Choirbook, embellish choral textures with new intricacy and contrapuntal complexity.”
The concert opened with Byrd’s exuberant “Vigilate” by Byrd, a colleague, collaborator, and possibly student of the older Thomas Tallis. Josquin des Prés, the Franco-Flemish master of polyphony, was represented by his Missa Gaudeamus, based on the Gregorian chant Gaudeamus omnes, whose complexity and scale suggest its use for All Saint’s Day. Full of beauty and serenity, Missa felt like a holiday blessing.
Four Byrd pieces followed. “Laetentur coeli” burst with rejoicing. Five singers were on stage for Byrd’s moving “Lullaby,” (which appears in many arrangements). ”Ye Sacred Muses” was written in grief after the death of his colleague Tallis, commemorated in the line “Tallis is dead, and Music dies.” Byrd’s motet “Ne irascaris” voices even more despair, begging the Lord not to remember our iniquity any longer. “Sion is become a wilderness. Jerusalem is forsaken.”
Edmund Turges’s only surviving piece turned out to be my favorite on the program. Full of contrapuntal complexity, his Magnificat, as Peter Phillips says, “is bright, not brainy. We smile when we sing it.” Alternating Gregorian chants and melismatic polyphony, this Magnificat was breathtakingly lovely. And the performance was perfection.
I have heard the Tallis Scholars half a dozen times, and I remain impressed by their purity of tone and beautiful blend of voices. The basses were unusually excellent. Throughout this concert, I was deeply moved by the stratospherically high voice of Amy Haworth, who often stole the show, if not my heart. Will I be there next year to hear the Scholars? You bet I will.