The Boston Early Music Festival continued its concert series on Friday, December 9th with an old favorite, Peter Phillips and the Tallis Scholars. A capacity crowd filed into St. Paul’s Parish in Harvard Square, proving that the Scholars’ appeal is as strong today as it was when the group began performing 28 years ago. I first heard them live at a BEMF concert at Church of the Advent, where I met the woman who became my wife. After 22 years and a near complete turnover of personnel, the ensemble of 10 singers still delivers the mix of extraordinary sound and frustrating expression that continues to leave me running hot and cold.
The Advent-themed program was originally slated to begin with a few Tallis Scholars chestnuts: the Josquin motet, Praeter rerun seriem, followed by Cipriano de Rore’s Mass Ordinary based on the Josquin motet. Unfortunately (and one might imagine a frequent consequence with an incredibly ambitious tour schedule), bass Rob Macdonald lost his voice. With as few as one singer on a part, this made the first half unperformable.
The solution was a last-minute substitution of the plainchant Assumpta est Maria (intoned stylishly by tenor Christopher Watson), followed by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina’s Offertory motet and Mass Ordinary, based on the same chant tune and scored for two sopranos, alto, two tenors, and bass. Standby alto Patrick Craig gave the tuning pitches, sometimes assisted by a tuning fork.
The group immediately delivered the clean counterpoint and rich, beautifully blended homophony for which they have maintained their fame for four decades. However, the absence of printed text showed up one of the group’s liabilities. In the effort to create exquisitely blended vowels, they shortchange the consonants. I picked up a change of mood on what I thought was the word “quae” and a nice change of color, but only found after consulting texts at home that that word doesn’t appear in the motet text. The effort to create unity suppresses all the vibrato out of sopranos Amy Haworth, Emily Atkinson, Cecilia Osmond, and Amanda Morrison. This focus on unity renders these singers’ voices a sound akin to that of boy sopranos with full professional training and control — but with individual expressiveness suppressed in the interest of the group sound. Note that there were exceptions; this motet and mass particularly gave tenors Watson and Simon Wall a chance to soar over the textures). And bass Tim Scott Whiteley had no problem balancing alone in the group.
As an exercise in sheer tonal beauty, the Tallis Scholars’ work remains consistently unparalleled, the finest in the world, and filling St. Paul’s with a heady, intoxicating sound. As a clarification of text or an expression of religious belief (even to an agnostic like me), it leaves one tantalizingly wishing for more.
The Palestrina Mass expands on the motivic material presented in the motet, and presents a wider range of textures. In the absence of dynamic shaping, the moments that caught my attention were the ones where the texture varied, such as the ensemble of tenors and bass on “Christe eleison,” a lovely tenor-soprano duet on “Gratias agimus,” and a haunting setting of the Crucifixus, brought off beautifully by sopranos Haworth, Atkinson, Osmond, and Morrison, and altos Craig and Caroline Trevor. They sounded resplendent.
The beloved Antiphon to the Magnificat for Christmas Day, as promised, materialized with the same tonal splendor, sublime tonal blend, and lack of differentiation or characterization that had prevailed in the first half. The Magnificat that followed was the Primi Toni setting by Tomás Luis de Victoria, scored for double choir of SSAT and SATB. For this celebratory Canticle, the response of the Virgin Mary on learning she is pregnant with Jesus, Victoria uses the two choirs, sometimes in alternation, sometimes antiphonally in call and response to each other, sometimes in canonical imitation. Here again, the variation in scoring lent vitality and aural interest to the Tallis Scholars’ sonic majesty.
Two settings of the Salve Regina followed. This is another hymn of praise to the Virgin, not exactly Advent-related, as it is usually sung in the church calendar right up until the first Sunday of Advent. Claudin de Sermisy’s setting wraps the Gregorian chant tune into intricate counterpoint, realized beautifully by the group minus two sopranos. They rejoined for another setting by Hernando Franco, a Spanish contemporary of Palestrina who emigrated to the New World and became maestro di capilla in Santiago de Guatemala and then Mexico City. Franco’s setting divides the text into four sections, alternating a unison chant with multi-part polyphony, again providing some differentiation and distinction that was well appreciated.
The final scheduled work, John Taverner’s (born c.1490) O splendor gloriae, is an effusive and extensive SATTB votive anthem in praise of the Holy Trinity. Unfortunately, I picked up problems here; the two tenors’ intonation felt like it was off by an eighth step — even such a small variation is jarring in a group of such technical precision. The sopranos seemed to be cueing from different tenors, so intonation problems spread. Sometimes it came back together, but towards the end, it drifted apart again. I wonder if the last-minute substitution (which they might not have paced themselves for) left them fatigued by evening’s end. Those sour moments spoiled what would otherwise have enviable.
Still, the crowd heard what they wanted, and delivered an enthusiastic standing. They returned for one encore, leapfrogging from the 15th and 16th centuries to the 20th with John Tavener’s (born 1944) setting of William Blake’s “The Lamb.” Tavener divides Blake’s poem about the Lamb and its parallels to Jesus, the Lamb of God, into four sections. An SSA segment starts in a high unison, using tune formulas to work the tune to weird dissonance before working the formulas backwards to unison again. The next part of the poem was set in the style of a church hymn or chorale tune, then another SSA segment, and another hymn segment. The stratospheric purity of the Tallis Scholars sopranos offered comfort on a cold winter’s night.
The Tallis Scholars continue touring through Great Britain, Russia, and Italy. The Boston Early Music Festival concert series resumes on Friday, January 13, 2017 with the London Haydn Quartet and clarinetist Eric Hoeprich.