Friday 8 March 2013

Old and New - Tallis Scholars Celebrate their 40th anniversary

The Tallis Scholars 40th Anniversary Concert in St Paul's Cathedral, March 7th, 2013. photo (c) Clive Barda
The Tallis Scholars 40th Anniversary Concert 
in St Paul's Cathedral, March 7th, 2013.
photo (c) Clive Barda

Amazing, the Tallis Scholars are celebrating their 40th anniversary. It seems hard to believe. Peter Phillips and the group celebrated in fine style with a concert at St. Paul's Cathedral on 7 March which mixed the early music for which they are famous with world premieres of works by Gabriel Jackson and Eric Whitacre, and the London premiere of a piece by Robin Walker. All topped off with a performance of Tallis's 40-part motet, Spem in alium. St Paul's was, I hardly need to add, packed.

Phillips used a rather bigger ensemble than usual, generally 10 to 16 singers depending on the piece. But given St. Paul's rather lively acoustic, I did wonder what the audience far down the nave could actually see and hear. Still, we were lucky enough to be under the dome, in the fifth row where the sound was surprisingly clear and focussed, with a lot of detail audible despite the amazing acoustic backwash.

They opened with Thomas Tallis's Loquebantur variis linguis, a glorious motet for Pentecost probably written for the Chapel Royal under Queen Mary. All the familiar Tallis Scholars virtues were here, with smooth lines and beautifully characterful singing. Tallis's seven-part Miserere is short, but profoundly beautiful (and rather clever too, as it is a double canon). The singers control and understatement was profound here, this was a thing of quiet beauty.

This control and understatement carried over into the next piece, Arvo Part's Nunc Dimittis. This started quietly with individual phrases rising out of a texture of long, quiet held notes. Gradually the texture got more complex, but generally homophonic and chant like with fragments of emerging from the textures, the piece rose to a superb climax on the words 'lumen ad revelationem gentium' (to be a light to lighten the Gentiles), before descending into quiet contemplation for the doxology. Part's work is apparently simple and depends for its effect on the accurate and superb placement of individual notes. This it received in spades, with the Tallis Scholars with superb control. Magical perfection.

Gabriel Jackson had written a substantial multi-part motet setting the text Ave Dei patris filia, which is a Marian antiphon set by Taverner, Tallis and Robert Fayrfax. In construction it owed much to early Tudor polyphony in the way Jackson created a multi-sectional piece, with a flexible use of the number of voices and some superbly elaborate polyphony. But of course, this was Tudor polyphony heard through a modern ear, and much of Jackson's melismatic writing was highly distinctive, though at times it seemed as if he had been listening to a lot of James MacMillan (which is no bad thing).

It was a piece which really needed to be listened to again, preferably in a rather less lively acoustic, as some of the more detailed, fascinating complex textures seemed to get a bit lost. But the way Jackson deftly used different combinations of voices achieved some ravishing textures. The early Tudor polyphony link ran to the high sopranos as well and the Tallis Scholars sopranos were fabulous, producing lovely high, clear lines including one lovely passage for sopranos alone. I suspect that some of Jackson's writing is rather tricky, but you would not have known it from the polished, confident and stylish performance from Phillips and the Tallis Scholars. A fascinating piece which will repay further listening. 

Part one concluded with William Byrd's Tribue, Domine which was published in Byrd and Tallis's Cantiones Sacrae of 1575. A big, big piece which received a performance of great intensity and great beauty. Such was the involvement of the singers in the music that a number of them started gently swaying.

Part two opened with one of the greatest hits of the Renaissance repertoire, Allegri's Miserere performed in the now traditional version created in the early 20th century with the fabulous, but non-canonical top C in the solo soprano part. A choir of ten stood under the dome in front of us, with a single tenor behind them in the choir singing the plainchant and high in the dome balconies the soloists created sounds of great beauty. The performance was perhaps inevitably taken at quite a steady tempo. The surprising thing was how strong the soloists sounded with the acoustics of the dome adding their own contribution.

Eric Whitacre's Saint-Chapelle sets a modern Latin text by Charles Anthony Silverstri which tells the story of a young woman going into the Sainte Chapelle and hearing the angels in the windows singing the Sanctus. The result was an evocative mix of chant and Whitacre's own distinctive harmonies. Whitacre had judged the occasion and performance location well; he constantly thinned the textures down so that the acoustics of St. Paul's was contributing rather than hindering. Quite a slow-moving work which combined both old and new in a striking way and which was just right for the space. Phillips and the Tallis Scholars have recorded the piece and it will be available for download as a digital single.

Robin Walker's I have thee by the hand, O man was commissioned by the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester as a companion piece for Tallis's Spem in Alium for performance by the Tallis Scholars. Born in York, Walker trained in Durham and taught at Manchester and now lives on the edge of Saddleworth Moor. His 40 part setting is described as a sacred madrigal, a dialogue between man and God. In the work, Walker uses the contrasts between the full 40 voices, smaller individual groups and a lone voice of God. The writing was tonal but full of spicy harmonies with some nice textures and a good feel for the forces, despite the 40 parts it never felt congested. At first the piece felt a bit loose in structure and I worried whether it was going anywhere, but then things picked up and I was able to appreciate the way Walker led us to the finally conclusion.

For Spem in alium conductor Peter Phillips did not opt for some sort of exotic staging using the space in St. Paul's, but instead placed his singers in a concentrated arc. This had the advantage that as the piece developed the sound moved across the choir, as Tallis probably intended, and Phillips relative closeness to the singers ensured a well controlled and nicely disciplined performance. A wonderful way to celebrate the choir's 40 years.

We were treated to an encore, Jean Mouton's Salva nos Domine. A setting of a Compline text in a wonderfully apt conclusion to a great occasion, and some very fine singing.

Peter Phillips and the Tallis Scholars will be travelling a great deal this year, further details of forthcoming concerts from the choir's website.

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