Spem in alium nunquam habui, as the opening line of their namesake’s magnum opus proclaims, “in none other would I place such hope” for illuminating a dark winter night as in the Tallis Scholars, who regaled Harvard’s Memorial Church for Boston Early Music Festival on Friday.
Age cannot wither or stale this nearly half-century-old ensemble. Although not one of the original singers remains on its current roster, founding director Peter Phillips stewards an a cappella choir that continues to deliver the same crystalline clarity and pinpoint precision that admirers have come to expect over the decades.
Appropriate for an ensemble that, arguably more than any other, has championed the Renaissance, the Tallis Scholars offered antiphonal symmetry in even program design. Each half of the evening commenced with Palestrina’s evocation of the Gregorian chant Hodie Christus natus est, veered into a haunting non-liturgical meditation on mortality in English, then concluded with a jubilant Magnificat.
Palestrina’s motet rendition of Hodie Christus natus est set the tone in a fanfare of joyous “noes” (a Medieval Christmas exclamation akin to “noel”) before the Kyrie and Gloria of his parody mass, Missa Hodie Christus natus est, whereby the composer recycled that earlier success into a full liturgical service.
An authoritative figure even during his lifetime, Palestrina emerged from the throes of the Counter-Reformation to be enshrined by subsequent generations as the ultimate standard bearer of Catholic liturgical music and Renaissance polyphony. His prolific output remains a staple in counterpoint classes as well as for the Tallis Scholars. No surprise here that the eight-voice choir settled right into its stride.
Quite the pleasant surprise, however, came next as Nico Muhly’s Rough Notes, commissioned by Columbia University’s Miller Theater in celebration of its 30th anniversary and the Tallis Scholars’ 45th, fit the choir every bit as well. Set to text from Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s diaries from his doomed final expedition to Antarctica, the piece perfectly harnesses the Scholars’ luminescence to depict a cinematic sweep of light transmogrifying through tenebrous expanse, of excitement and trepidation crystalizing as frost on breath.
A Magnificat by John Nesbett — one of his only two known compositions, preserved in the Eton Choirbook along other such exemplars of early English polyphony by otherwise obscure names — rounded out the first half with the soft-green freshness of an early April meadow.
The second half picked up on Palestrina’s Missa Hodie Christus natus est where the first left off, robust and ruddy in the expansive Credo and pulsing hosannas, intricately and inextricably sinuous as solo strands interwove through the Benedictus, otherworldy as the Agnus Dei ascended.
William Byrd’s mournful Lullaby echoed the more pensive passages of Muhly’s Rough Notes, and a rousing Magnificat by Hieronymus Praetorius, itself interspersed with passages from the carols Joseph, lieber Joseph mein and In dulci jubilo, harkened back to Nesbett even as it crowned the evening with a merriment rare in the Tallis Scholars’ strictly sacred repertoire.
In a world rife with crossover acts, the Tallis Scholars have been remarkably on-brand, rarely ever straying from Renaissance sacred music to dabble in anything even hinting at — perish the thought — Baroque, much less beyond. While I respect this discipline and applaud their steady progress through what appears to be an inexhaustible trove even within those parameters, I have long wishfully wondered what treasures await if they might branch out a bit more. Recent years have yielded fruitful forays into Arvo Pärt, Eric Whitacre, and now Nico Muhly. More, please? And perhaps also some of the secular music that conversed with the sacred in a period when, if anything, both realms were undergoing considerable, if not convulsive, flux?
Before a charming choice of encore — John Tavener’s The Lamb, one of the few 20th-century pieces the Tallis Scholars have dignified since its earlier incarnations — founding director Peter Phillips observed that, at 30 years and counting, the Tallis Scholars’ annual Boston Early Music Festival appearances constitute the longest continuous streak they have held anywhere in the world. For this he thanked BEMF, to which I heartily concur, especially considering what miracles the staff had to perform to execute a late-notice venue change for a sold-out show at the height of holiday concert season. The Tallis Scholars’ substantial discography boasts many immaculately celestial recordings that repay repeated study, but live, even in Memorial Church’s slightly wooden acoustic, the ethereal gained an earthiness and the divine a human depth.