Friday 24 October 2014

Tallis Scholars at Cadogan Hall

The Tallis Scholars - photo credit Eric Richmond
The Tallis Scholars - photo credit Eric Richmond
Metamorphosis - Palestrina, Gibbons, Part, Sheppard, Tavener, Stravinsky, Gallus, Mouton, Holst; The Tallis Scholars, Peter Phillips; Cadogan Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Oct 23 2014
Star rating: 5.0

Compare and contrast programme, with settings of the same text from different traditions

For their programme, Metamorphosis, at the Cadogan Hall on Thursday 23 October 2014, Peter Phillips and the Tallis Scholars gave us an interesting mix and match programme in which the same text was performed in settings from the English, Latin, Russian and other traditions. We had settings of the Magnificat by Palestrina, Orlando Gibbons and Arvo Part, the Lord's Prayer from John Sheppard, John Tavener, Stravinsky, Palestrina and Jacobus Gallus, the Ave Maria by Jean Mouton, Stravinsky and Part, and the Nunc Dimittis by Gibbons, Part, Palestrina and Gustav Holst. The results made a satisfying programme and a very fascinating survey.

The programme began with Magnificat settings. The Magnificat primi toni by Giovanni da Palestrina (c1525 - 1594) is for double choir, but Palestrina does not restrict the antiphonal action to just the two choirs, and there were lots of other groupings of voices as well. It was a work of surface calm, but with vivid detail enlivening the lines. The Magnificat (in English) from the Short Service by Orlando Gibbons (1583 - 1625) is also for double choir. Here an essentially homophonic work was made vivid by Gibbons' little variations from the norm and by the rhythmic liveliness of the singing. The Magnificat by Arvo Part (born 1936) give us an altogether different atmosphere. Set in Latin, the work is one of apparent simplicity and calm poise as Part explores the contrast between high soprano and the rest of the choir. All rendered superbly by the Tallis Scholars.

The Lord's Prayer by John Sheppard (c151 - 1558), set in English, was a gentle, six-part piece full of lively rhythmic detail and some lovely rich textures, in a very poised performance. The setting of the same English text by Sir John Tavener (1944 - 2013) combined a gentle rocking motion with simple harmonies but lots of lovely passing dissonances. The setting in Russian, Otche nash by Igor Stravinsky (1882 - 1971) dates from 1926. It was a gentle piece, full of expressive austerity with the singers giving perfect placement to the dissonances. Palestrina's five-part Pater noster (in Latin) had a smoothly expressive texture, with some lovely melismatic moments in the voices. Finally another Latin setting, by Jacobus Gallus (1550 - 1591). This was not showy, but full of beautifully constructed and gently expressive polyphony.

After the interval we moved to settings of the Ave Maria. First one by Jean Mouton (c1459 - 1522) in Latin. This was in fact a troped version with a very long text, and Mouton gave us slowly interweaving polyphony, contrasting solos and small groups with tutti. Highly expressive, the piece moved into another world at the end when the repeated O Maria was sung to hushed homophony which contrasted poignantly with the polyphony around it. Stravinsky's Bogoroditse dievo from 1934 sets the Russian Orthodox version of the this text. It was gentle yet austere, with expressive harmony. Short and lovely. Finally Arvo Part's 1990 setting of the same Russian text, notably for its brisk rhythmicality, not at all like his later manner. It was a shame that, for this group, an English text could not have been found.

Finally a group of settings of the Nunc Dimittis. The first one was by Gibbons, from the Short Service, setting the text in English. This was quite a compact piece, but sung with beautiful poise and again some lovely textual rhythmic details. Arvo Part's Latin setting (from 2001) was all long, smooth held notes creating an aetherial but disturbing atmosphere, with beautifully placed dissonance. Then suddenly, all was glorious at the word Lumen. Palestrina's Nunc dimittis, for double choir, was smoothly expressive polyphony, with the alternation of the two choirs used to highly imaginative effect to point the text. Finally, something of a surprise, another Latin setting dating from 1915 by Gustav Holst (1874 - 1934). A beautifully crafted piece which looks rather back, it was full of luminous harmonies and lovely rich yet transparent textures, leading to a radiant close.

This was a lovely programme which gave us a rather different view of familiar repertoire, one which I think helps to put the different pieces into perspective.

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