Thursday 29 December 2016

Wintry Darkness from the Tallis Scholars

The Tallis Scholars
Josquin des Prez, Cipriano de Rore, Tomas Luiz de Victoria, Hernando Franco and John Tavener; The Tallis Scholars, Peter Phillips; St John's Smith Square
Reviewed by Ruth Hansford on Dec 21 2016
Star rating: 3.5

Darkness & mystery in this programme of Renaissance music

If you had walked into St John’s Smith Square (21 December 2016) without knowing what The Tallis Scholars did or what the music was, you would not immediately guess that this was a Christmas concert. There was plenty of darkness and mystery in this programme of Renaissance music that looked back to a time when Christmas was a time to celebrate – or reflect on – the unknown. Directed by Peter Phillips, they performed music by Josquin des Prez, Cipriano de Rore, Tomas Luiz de Victoria, Hernando Franco and John Tavener.

We started with Josquin’s short Christmas motet, Praeter rerum seriem (‘Beyond the order of this world’, the Virgin Mother bore God in human form). Something unfathomable yet perfect. The piece starts low and emerges slowly from the depths, with the cantus firmus or plainchant moving slowly ‘like tectonic plates’, said James Potter in his programme note. Josquin sowed the musical seeds for later composers by his understanding and exploitation of the music printing business – indeed he seems to have had rock-star status in his day, spawning imitations from copyists who would pass their work off as Josquin’s.

This austere motet certainly set the mood for the evening, and it provided the inspiration for de Rore’s full-length mass that followed. This was a still, meditative piece, written in praise of his employer Hercules of Ferrara and in homage to Josquin, and hence earning him a salary as well as a reputation as a clever composer.

After the interval the singers came on with tinsel as hair or buttonhole accessories and this led us to expect a lighter, jollier second half of the evening. However, de Rore’s Hodie Christus natus est was sung carefully. The vocal fatigue that we had heard towards the end of the first half was more evident. I wanted a warmer sound for the Victoria Magnificat but in this and the Franco Salve Regina this warmth was provided only by the tenors.

The other Salve Regina billed was by Claudin de Sermisy, but Peter Phillips announced that the piece would not stand up to performance so was replaced by a setting of the same text by Josquin. The final piece was Taverner’s motet, possibly written with Christopher Tye, which may explain the two contrasting styles in the piece: a stratospheric soprano line interspersed with an earth-bound harmony. Though immaculately executed, I did feel it needed an effort to have us imagine we were in a cathedral acoustic.

The encore was chosen by countertenor Patrick Craig, one of the two singers who were singing for the last time with the Tallis Scholars (the other being tenor Chris Watson). He chose a piece for Epiphany by Lassus – by far the brightest sound we had heard all night and, as such, made more sense of the programme (and the aforementioned tinsel).

The capacity audience were unreserved in their appreciation of the concert, with rock-gig whoops at the end.
Reviewed by Ruth Hansford

The Tallis Scholars
Peter Phillips – Director

Josquin des Prez – Praeter rerum seriem
Cipriano de Rore – Missa Praeter rerum seriem
Cipriano de Rore – Hodie Christus natus est
Tomás Luis de Victoria – Magnificat Primi Toni a 8
Josquin Desprez – Salve Regina
Hernando Franco – Salve Regina
John Taverner – O splendor gloriae

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