The Tallis Scholars’ Compelling Polyphony

Nelida Nassar  12.16.2014

The Tallis Scholars are widely considered to be the world’s leading exponents of Renaissance sacred music, and their appearance in Boston during the Christmas season is a much-awaited annual event. Their concerts, presented by the Boston Early Music Festival, take place at St Paul’s Church in Cambridge.

Under the guiding hand and spirit of the choir’s founder and director Peter Phillips, the ten voices of this stellar British group performed music centered around motets of William Byrd, Josquin De Prez, and Edmond Turges.

Byrd, the greatest of the late Renaissance English composers, wrote in many of the forms current in England at the time, including various types of sacred and secular polyphony, consort music and pieces for the keyboard (and was a member of the so-called Virginalist school). He produced sacred music for use in Anglican and Catholic services, as he himself became a Roman Catholic in later life.

Possessing exceptional purity and warmth, the voices of the Tallis Scholars (with two singers per part) conveyed the beauty of Byrd’s Latin motets with seeming effortlessness. These were selected from among the Cantiones sacrae, first published in 1589 and 1591. In Letentur coeli, from the first volume, Byrd’s predilection for dense counterpoint is particularly in evidence. Ye sacred Muses captures his deep sorrow upon the death of his friend and mentor, Thomas Tallis, while the other two motets demonstrate the breadth
of his artistry, from the exuberance of Vigilate to the restrained yearning of Ne
irascaris, Domine.

The program included an early mass by Josquin des Prez, a central figure of the Franco-Flemish Renaissance. An astonishingly rich piece, his Missa Gaudeamus is based on a plainchant, the Gregorian introit of the same name. The motif consists of the first six notes of the introit, which make up the word “Gaudeamus.” This is the most recognizable melodic material, and can be found in every movement of the work. The Tallis Scholars brilliantly rendered the different voice variations involved in the ostinato passages, where the chant could be heard in the long notes assigned to several of the voices, and they flawlessly conveyed the modal richness, rhythmic invention and complexity packed into this showcase of late 15thcentury polyphony.

The concert concluded with a Magnificat by Edward Turges, a little known composer active in the reign of Henry VII (1485-1509). Only a handful of his sacred compositions are documented, among them four Magnificats, three written for the Eton Choirbook, now lost, and the surviving one from the Caius Choirbook. In the latter, Turges displays great exuberance and inventiveness, for example in alternating sections of five and six voices. The Tallis Scholars sang it with stunning precision, convincingly demonstrating that this composer’s music merits further study and performances. Altogether, this was a memorable concert that will surely keep aficionados of Renaissance music longing for its annual return.

William Byrd: Vigilate
Josquin des Prez: Missa Gaudeamus
William Byrd: Laetentur caeli
William Byrd: Lullaby
William Byrd: Ye sacred muses
William Byrd: Ne irascaris
Edmund Turges: Magnificat

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