David Hughes led the Tactus Ensemble in Harvard University’s Memorial Church Tuesday evening. Founded in 2013 as an off-season, mostly-amateur summer choir specializing in music of the late Renaissance and early Baroque, Tactus has slowly grown under the leadership of Hughes to its current 24 members. Tuesday’s appearance in “Mem” Church constituted only the latest growth spurt for the group, which usually appears in the University’s Appleton Chapel. Eager concert-goers had to be turned away from the smaller venue during December’s program. The new venue presented new challenges for the group, which nonetheless performed with complete dedication to the eager audience that filled the larger space.
Works by Byrd, Lassus, des Prez and their contemporaries don’t always make for the most challenging fare. Tuesday’s assortment, “Drinking Songs & Lamentations,” took neither noun literally. “Lamentations” placed Estevao de Brito’s settings of Jeremiah’s Lamentations or de Prez’s mournful Nymphes des bois on equal footing with a young Orlando de Lassus’s jaunty madrigal, A ce matin, complaining about not having enough silver in his purse. On the other hand, Palestrina’s poignant Guttur tuum sicut vinum optimum (“Your throat is like the best wine”) from the Song of Solomon and Manuel Cardoso’s Aquam quam ego dabo (“The water which I give you), taken from the Gospel of John, found its place among rowdy paeans to beer, tobacco, and fatty ham from the Elizabethan drinking crowd. Charmingly droll narration between pieces by both Hughes and assistant conductor Adrian Cho delightfully and irreverently bent the genres.
Tactus appeared comfortable in the larger nave of Memorial Church during the evening’s madrigals; they ornamented the gracefully shaped vocal lines with crisp diction and sharp dynamic contrasts. They dispatched Weelkes’s Come sirrah Jack, ho! and Senfl’s So trinken wir alle with vivid energy; Byrd’s thoughtfully conceived and elegantly balanced Come Jolly Swains revealed the intricacies of the inner voices. Liturgical examples sounded less even. While long, sustained lines may have resonated fully in the intimate space of Appleton Chapel, the grander, dryer sanctuary left the choir exposed; reserved tempos of these sacred works seemed sluggish here. Many memorable moments nevertheless emerged in the religious ones: the ensemble’s attention to detail revealed itself in de Brito’s Lamentations which they splendidly illuminated with character and direction, each iteration of the Hebrew letter “Heth” richly illustrating a unique and deep sound-world. Adrian Cho’s sensitively led the final verse of Nymphes de bois, which plaintively calls on Josquin and his peers to mourn the passing of Ockeghem; the disciplined, well-balanced ensemble executed it with poise. From the memorably resonant lower-sonorities in Byrd’s Ne Irascaris Domine, which resounded in viscerally satisfying ripples, to the concluding strains, Tactus closed its season in great style .