After hearing the Tallis Scholars deliver what Artistic Director and founder Peter Phillips celebrated as its 54th appearance for Boston Early Music Festival since BEMF’s inaugural concert season in 1989, I observed how last night’s “Hymns to the Virgin” testified to the continued validity of the brand. The Scholars’ Marian Devotions came across to a rapt full house at the very Roman Catholic sanctuary of Saint Paul’s Church, Cambridge. Josquin des Prez’s Missa Ave maris stella took pride of place among Renaissance polyphonic motets by Orlando de Lassus, Heinrich Isaac, Francisco Guerrero, and the 87-year-old minimalist Arvo Pärt’s apparition-imagining SATB Virgencita.
One could happily have donned a prayer shawl as the one-or two-on-a-part singers—sopranos Amy Haworth, Victoria Meteyard, Katy Hill, and Lucinda Cox; altos Caroline Trevor and Elisabeth Paul; tenors Steven Harrold and Simon Wall; and basses Tim Scott Whiteley and Rob Macdonald—reveled in the ancient Latin texts and ornamental figurations. Francisco Guerrero’s (1528-1599) Ave virgo sanctissima typified their work under the experienced and exacting polyphonically polygamous leader.
Hail, ever glorious,
lovely as the lily,
beautiful and perfumed as the rose.
Precious like the Virgin, but never twee, the ensemble vocalized impeccably in the supportive sanctuary (why was the tabernacle open and the host removed for this very sacred concert?) with an accuracy as to pitch characterizable as being fitted with fretted vocal cords. Over the relatively narrow emotional range (with one exception) of the Mass texts, the ten singers blended with startling unanimity, especially the pure-as-snow women, who soared as one in periodic high notes that played with the room resonances most loftily. The men possessed more distinctive individual vocal instruments. One would like to have called out individuals, but absent pictures or mini bios, identification was impossible.
The printed group bio did not allude to changes of personnel over the years, but one can read that the Scholars’ roster remained consistent for its first couple of decades, until some individuals, such as Mark Padmore and John Mark Ainsley left to take up solo careers. Please tell us more next time.
For this listener, and seemingly for the demonstrative crowd, Arvo Pärt’s Virgencita constituted the emotional summit of the concert. Pärt recounted: “When Agustín Gutiérrez Canet, the Mexican ambassador to Estonia, invited me to Mexico, my interest and notions of the country were strongly affected by the famous legend of Juan Diego and his reports of the apparition of the Virgin Mary. The happy anticipation of being in Mexico very soon and the name Guadalupe left me no peace; they inspired me to write a choral work which I took along as a present to the people of Mexico.”
Seemingly radiating from silence, according to essayist Andreas Peer Kähler, and more chordal than the polyphonic scores that surrounded it last night, the work’s astonishingly pungent dissonances and brightly harmonic stretches, set to the evening’s strongest texts, kept strangely effective company with the early Mary worship. This 6-minute mini masterpiece celebrating the apparitions of the Virgin of Guadalupe, crescendoing to the only fff full cry of the evening in Salva nos (save us), elicited the evenings strongest acclaim from the full house at the large and resonant sanctuary.
Heinrich Isaac’s (ca. 1450-1517): Virgo prudentissima also left a strong impression, mostly from the strangeness of its topical text saluting the composer’s employer, but also from its surprising musical complexity:
You we invoke, Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael,
to pour upon her chaste ears
our prayers and entreaties
for the sacred empire and
for Maximilian the Emperor.
May the all-powerful Virgin
grant that he conquer his wicked enemies,
and restore peace
to the nations and safety to the land.
With faithful skill Georgius,
the Emperor’s Precentor and Kapellmeister,
rehearses this anthem for you.
diligent in everything,
earnestly commends himself,
Mother, to your tender joys.
The highest place, however, belongs to Him
by whom you were taken up,
through whom you shine, beautiful as the moon,|
and are as excellent as the sun (et ut sol.)
James Morley Potter, Director of Music and Precentor at Magdalene College, Cambridge, and a busy freelance conductor and choral director explained in his handout essay:
In his day, Heinrich Isaac held a preeminence second only to Josquin. By 1507, he was in the employ of Maximilian, who was presently to be crowned Holy Roman Emperor. The motet Virgo prudentissima was designed to demonstrate the soon-to-be Emperor’s piety and cast Mary as his heavenly supporter and advocate. The text, describing her as the “most-wise Virgin” combined with language from the Song of Songs, is matched by music of considerable “wisdom.” It employs multiple internal canons in which three voices sing the same music at different times, and includes a number of musical puns to delight the learned listener. Isaac dials up the awe by interspersing complicated decorative passages with monumental, slow-moving chant.
There is even a self-referential moment as the musicians mention their own participation in this heavenly endorsement. Finally, the words ut sol (as the sun) provide an opportunity that Isaac could not resist: a musical pun in which he set syllables to their corresponding scale degrees.
Alma redemptoris mater a8 by Orlando de Lassus (ca. 1532–1594), speaking of Mary as “the ever-open gate of heaven,” had opened the reflective, and sometimes redemptive performance, at once transporting us to an ancient, incensed chancel. We felt like honored guests in a deluxe time machine as the ancient but modern sounds wafted in statements, imitations, and cadences with beautiful ritards and diminuendos…over and over again.
From the 572-year-old Josquin des Prez came the major work of the concert: Missa Ave maris Stella. Potter helpfully explained:
The chant which underpins this mass, Ave maris stella, was a well-known hymn, still regularly used in devotions to the Blessed Virgin Mary…The tenor sings the hymn tune in full during the Osanna. Peter Phillips notes the concision of Josquin’s method in the mass, using the four phrases of the hymn as units to be dispersed around the voice parts. He considers it ‘a model exercise in cantus firmus treatment, suggesting that Josquin was summing up all he knew about it at this point in his career, before moving on.’
The Kyrie began with the boy-soprano-timbred women unfurling a white ribbon of sound as though in a chivalrous tournament. A tenor intoned the Kyrie as a chanting priest, inspiring imitating choral responses. Quoniam tu solus Sanctus, pleading and pure, made sacred intercession as decorative chant within theatrical thrills, putting the work across more with quiet meaning than salesmanship. In the Credo section the Scholars showed off their ability to achieve legato without entirely stinting on hard consonants…this is not an easy task. They managed their signal passagework through glottal and diaphragmatic articulations with absolutely no slides between notes. They also found a believer’s emotional engagement, though certainly conveying it within devotional confines. The women started the Sanctus with particularly haunting reverence. Pleni sunt coeli sounded alternately intense and sing-song, though with nothing approximated. The text of the Hosanna calls for a celebratory mien, but the well-oiled performing engine never loosed its tasteful governor for any balls-out exuberance. The misereres in the Agnus Dei provided the women another chance to soar; and the Mass ended where it began, in rapt silence.
The Scholars also asked for and received sacerdotal help from the “other Marys” in Guerrero’s Maria Magdalene, though the composer could have done much more with word painting. Too much placidity prevailed for depictions of fear and resurrection.
With the requisite standing ovation, the grateful votaries at Saint Paul’s Church earned an encore…after Phillips gave a high-toned sales pitch for his CDs. Ave Regina Caelorum by Lassus gave the ensemble another opportunity for ascending and descending gleaming marble staircases of notes in Escher-like convolutions, while periodically converging in cadential landings.
“Hail, ever glorious, precious pearl,” indeed. We give thanks for the accomplishments of this group not only for its many recordings and visits to Boston, but also for how it has inspired similar but singular ensembles such as the Sixteen and Blue Heron…and of course many listeners.
Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer