Chasing the Perfect Sound with The Tallis Scholars   

Nélida Nassar   12.15.2016

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For more than four decades, The Tallis Scholars have been leading exponents of the English choral tradition. Recognized for their “timeless nobility,” they are undoubtedly one of the most prestigious mixed chamber choirs in the world today. Founded by their conductor Peter Phillips in 1973, The Tallis Scholars have long been considered the gold standard in their field thanks to their stubborn perfectionism, which has allowed them to craft an exceptionally pure a cappella sound. The ensemble, with a core group of ten singers, normally assigns two singers per part. Their mission is not just to interest people in the Renaissance repertoire but also to introduce audiences to great composers who have been forgotten. First and foremost, however, we should note Phillip’s ability to reconcile harmonic gracefulness with interiority, allowing every detail of the vocal line to be perfectly audible. The result is church music that, while firmly embedded in the Christian tradition, transcends all particular doctrines.

The Tallis Scholars made their annual appearance in Harvard Square, as part of the Boston Early Music Festival series, at historic Saint Paul’s parish church, itself a notable example of Romanesque style architecture in Cambridge. They were welcomed enthusiastically at this musical gathering, which over the years has become a must for the lovers of medieval, Renaissance and Baroque music. The program featured, among other masters of polyphony, two whose sacred and secular works infused a cappella writing with a new expressiveness: the Franco-Flemish composer Josquin des Prés and the Englishman John Taverner, represented, respectively, by the Christmas motet Praeter rerum seriem and the elaborate O splendor gloriae.

The group also performed other Renaissance masterworks, including the Franco-Flemish Cyprien de Rore’s Hodie Christus natus est, the Spaniard Tomás Luis de Victoria’s Magnificat Primi Toni, and two Salve reginas, one by the Frenchman Claudin de Sermisy and another by the Spanish-Mexican master Hernando Franco. De Rore, remembered nowadays as a very important madrigalist, was also a fine composer of sacred music. His polyphonic gem Hodie Christus natus est showcased the choir’s rhetorical power at its most intense. Unfortunately, bass Rob Macdonald was indisposed and De Rore’s Missa Praeter rerum, based on Josquin’s powerful Christmas motet Præter rerum seriem two of the scheduled pieces were substituted by the plainchant Assumpta est Mass and Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina’s Offertory motet and Mass Ordinary. The first was stylishly intoned by tenor Christopher Watson, and the Offertory motet and Mass Ordinary based on the same chant tune was scored for two sopranos, alto, two tenors and bass. In the absence of a printed text they were rather difficult to follow.

The high point of the concert was probably Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli composed in honor of Pope Marcellus II. Like most Renaissance masses, it consists of a Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus/Benedictus, and an Agnus Dei, though the third part of the Agnus Dei is a separate movement (designated “Agnus II”). It is freely composed, i.e., not based upon a cantus firmus or parody. The ensemble rendered the varied musical texture splendidly — in particular the ensemble of tenors and bass in the Christe eleison, the lovely tenor-soprano duet in the Gratias agimus, and a haunting setting of the Crucifixus, beautifully sand by sopranos Haworth, Atkinson, Osmond, and Morrison, and altos Craig and Caroline Trevor.  

This was followed by two versions of the Salve regina, a hymn of praise to the Virgin sung in the church calendar right up until the first Sunday of Advent. The one by Claudin de Sermisy transforms the Gregorian chant tune into an example of intricate counterpoint, beautifully executed by the group, minus two sopranos. All ten members joined in for the piece by Hernando Franco, a Spanish contemporary of Palestrina who emigrated to the New World, becoming maestro di capella in Santiago de Guatemala and then Mexico City. Franco’s version divides the text into four sections, alternating a unison chant with multi-part polyphony, thus providing a certain degree of differentiation and distinction that was much appreciated by the audience.

The concert concluded with John Taverner’s O splendor gloriae, an effusive anthem in praise of the Holy Trinity, sung by the two sopranos and two tenors. The whole choir returned for an encore of John Tavener’s setting of William Blake’s “The Lamb,” a poem about the lamb and its parallels to Jesus, the Lamb of God.  Here the purity of the sopranos reached its summit. This evening The Tallis Scholars proved once more how united they are by a zeal for the intricate harmonies and ethereal sound of the Renaissance. “It’s never changed.” As Phillips has said, “It’s a perfect sound that I’m aiming at.” His passion remains undiminished, forcefully conveyed by the group’s perfect mastery of that sound, so evident in both phrasing and interpretation, once again wedding elegance to humanity.