Wednesday 18 December 2013

Tallis Scholars at the Temple Winter Festival

Peter Philips and the Tallis Scholars
The Tallis Scholars and Peter Philips are coming to the end of their 40th anniversary year and their 98th concert this year was at the Temple Church as part of the Temple Winter Festival on Tuesday 17 December 2013. The concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3, introduced by Sarah Mohr-Pietsch. The Tallis Scholars' programme gave us a variety of different composers' approaches to the Magnificat, with settings by Heinrich Schütz, Hieronymous Praetorius and Arvo Pärt along with music by Orlandus Lassus and Hans Leo Hassler.

All the music in the first half of the concert was written for double choir, with the 10 singers of the Tallis Scholars dividing into two four-part choirs. They opened with Omnes de Saba Venient by Lassus (c1532 - 1594) written towards the end of Lassus's long life. It started with a bang, and then developed into a beautifully constructed dialogue between the two choirs. The group sang with a fine sense of blend and smoothness of texture, but with a lovely feel for the rhythms in Lassus's work.

Next came the Missa Octava by Hans Leo Hassler (1564 - 1612), an older contemporary of Heinrich Schütz who, like Schütz, studied with Gabrieli in Venice. Missa Octava is a relatively conservative work, it is not showy but has a certain well-made quality. Much of the work relied on the alternation between the two choirs, sometimes in dialogue, sometimes repeating text. He also gave each choir solo moments at key points, so that choir one sang the Christe section of the Kyrie. Hassler's word setting was quite leisurely and he used the two choirs to help vary the texture.  At key moments both choirs came together, such as in the glorious concluding section to the Gloria. The Credo opened with the two choirs passing the text between them, but at the key moment of Et incarnatus est we got a lovely eight-part texture. This led into a solo section for choir two where the upper voices were in dialogue with the lower voices, a rather striking an imaginative moment. Hassler's writing is very conventional, but with the power to surprise. The Sanctus started with a leisurely dialogue but led into a rich eight-part texture. The group gave the feeling that the Agnus Dei slowly unfolded with all the time in the world. Each choir sang separately, coming together for the Miserere, but then Hassler had a surprise, bringing both groups together for the final Agnus Dei with its lovely Dona Nobis Pacem.

The Tallis Scholars brought out the beauty of Hassler's vocal writing, giving us a finely modulated texture and superb attention to detail. I have to confess, though, that I would have preferred it if they had broken the movements of the mass up with some plainchant rather than giving us a single monolithic whole which did not quite do justice to Hassler.

The first half finished with the Deutsches Magnificat by Heinrich Schütz (1585 - 1672). One of his last works, the Magnificat sets the text in German but the vocal writing harks back to Schütz's training in Venice with Gabrieli. Again he used the two choirs in dialogue, but Schütz's writing is far tighter than Hassler's with the two choirs swapping short phrases. The Tallis Scholars gave the piece a crisp, lively feel emphasising the immediacy of Schütz's writing. They sang with a lovely full voiced sound, making the work very vibrant, and making the most of the dance-like textures of the the triple time sections of the piece.

Part two opened with Arvo Pärt's Sieben Magnificat Antiphonen, his settings of the German texts of the great O Antiphons. Written in 1988 the work is deliberately austere and and concerned to characterise each movement with a different mood. The piece is rather challenging for the singers, requiring a superb sense of control  I have sung these myself, but have usually heard them sung by a far larger group of singers. The Tallis Scholars took Pärt's writing and made it their own, bringing their familiar sense of line, control and fine detail to bear.

In O Weisheit Peter Philips kept the tempo moving, making the movement less massive than some. The sopranos and basses displayed brilliant control in the sections where they miss out notes but have to give the sense of a continuous line. Frankly, I have never heard this performed better and the sopranos command was almost ideal. O Adonai displayed the sort of control that comes from using small forces, this was a tour de force but not showy. Written for tenors and basses, the movement  used just four lower-voiced singers. In O Schlussel Davids the singers showed how their accurate placing of notes could really count, creating a fabulous texture. In the climax they displayed a surprising amount of power, not as a massive wall of sound but giving an intense and bright focus to the tone. Beauty of tone and texture was what counted in O Morgenstern whilst O Konig was rather intense, with the choir responding to the way Pärt uses different groups of singers to place blocks of colour. A small wobble at the opening of this movement was the only technical slip a technically demanding work. Finally O Immanuel was full of beautiful tone, and the sopranos impressed with the way they repeated their top notes in such a finely controlled manner.

Pärt's Magnificat sets the Latin text, using a single soprano voice chanting on a single pitch, against the choral groupings. Again he uses different groups of voices to provide blocks of colour with some rather striking moments with just high sopranos and low basses. Only at the words et sanctum nomen ejus (and Holy is his Name) does Pärt bring all the voices together for a clear tutti. The work is very austere with a slow moving texture and a rather massive quality. The singers placed the notes superbly and had a rather magical control of texture, creating something rather mesmerising.

Philips and the Tallis Scholars concluded what was a rather generously planned programme with the Magnifivat  V by Heinrich Praetorius (1560 - 1629). In it, Praetorius sets the Latin Magnificat text alternating verses of chant and verses of polyphony. But then he interleaves it with settings of two German carols, Joseph lieber, Joseph mein and In Dulci Jubilo. Praetorius uses two unequal choirs with choir one of sopranos, alto and tenor and choir two of alto, tenor and basses. Each text is giving its own distinctive setting and Joseph lieber in particular makes maximum use of the upper and lower voiced choirs. But Praetorius brings of the dazzling feat of working these rather disparate elements into a satisfying and fascinating whole. The group's performance was highly infectious and they clearly enjoyed the piece, conveying that to the audience.

As an encore we were treated to John Tavener's setting of the Lord's Prayer which he wrote for the Tallis Scholars in 1999.

The concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 which means that it is available on-line for a further seven days.

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