Saturday 23 September 2017

Familiar and unfamiliar: Tallis Scholars at Cadogan Hall

Peter Phillips and the Tallis Scholars
Peter Phillips and the Tallis Scholars
Palestrina, Monteverdi, Allegri, Gesualdo, Lotti; The Tallis Scholars, Peter Phillips; Cadogan Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Sep 22 2017 Star rating: 4.0
The Tallis Scholars open the 10th Choral at Cadogan series with Italian motets on the cusp of Renaissance and Baroque

The Tallis Scholars and Peter Phillips opened the 10th season of Choral at Cadogan on Friday 22 September 2017 with a programme of Italian motets at Cadogan Hall. The programme ranged from Palestrina, through Gesualdo and Monteverdi (including the Messa quattro voci da cappella) to Lotti, with Allegri's Miserere as a bon bouche.

The have been a few changes in the ensemble (Amy Haworth, Emma Walshe, Emily Atkinson, Charlotte Ashley, Caroline Trevor, Helen Charlston, Steven Harrold, Simon Wall, Simon Whitely, Greg Skidmore) with some regular members moving on, and the sound did not always feel completely bedded in, though perhaps that was the effect of the Summer holidays. The group started with Palestrina's Laudate pueri, in a strong, up-front performance where there was far more of a sense of individual voices than we are used to with this group. It was a large scale piece, and made a terrific concert opener. More intimate Palestrina followed with Virgo prudentissima, with some beautifully shaped phrasing, vibrant but controlled.

The remaining work in the first half was Monteverdi's Messa quattro voci da cappella from 1650. Monteverdi's music in the prima pratica style does not receive as much publicity as his music in the more advanced style, but Monteverdi clearly thought it important. We heard all five movements from the mass, 'Kyrie', 'Gloria', 'Sanctus & Benedictus', 'Agnus Dei'. Written for four part choir, for all the Palestrina-eque polyphony, the 'Kyrie' had a very direct feel with a strong sense of impetus. The 'Gloria' was lively and rhythmic, keeping going until 'Qui tollis' brought a more contemplative pause before a vibrant finale. The 'Credo' was surprisingly gentle, though the words were admirably clear in the setting  and the 'Incarnatus' was beautifully intimate. A lively triple time 'Resurrexit' led to vibrant finish. The 'Sanctus & Benedictus' was gentle and intimate with surprising variety of textures given there were just four parts, and a lovely lively and engaging 'Hosanna'. The 'Agnus Dei' started quite busily but gently unwound in a striking manner.

After the interval we had Allegri's Miserere given in the now traditional modern edition with a top C (which is a 20th century invention, see Ben Byram-Wigfield's essay). The work is something of a Tallis Scholars party-piece (we heard it at their 40th anniversary concert at St Paul's Cathedral), but it is tricky to bring off in the rather dry Cadogan Hall acoustic. The performance felt very present, and the small second choir did not always sound ideally relaxed though the top soprano gave us some lovely ornamentations to her line, and Simon Wall contributed some finely relaxed chant.

Next came a pair of Gesualdo's motets. Whilst it is easy to associate the composer's chromatic and intense style with his tortured private life, it is worth bearing in mind that Neapolitan composers of the time were also experimenting with the chromatic, and that Gesualdo was also influence by the work of g Luzzasco Luzzaschi, in Ferrara. But when all is said and done, Gesualdo's motets are almost Sui generis. We heard two, O vos omnes and Aestimatus sum. Perhaps the performances did not sound quite a second nature as they ought, the chromatic shifts a bit too studied, and we were again very much aware of individual voices in the group.But they certainly captured the sense of unease in the music, highlighting the dark and dangerous way that Gesualdo illuminated the text.

Lotti's Crucifixus a 8 is not actually a motet, but in fact part of a larger 'Credo' (which received its premiere recording by the Syred Consort, the Orchestra of St Paul's and conductor Ben Palmer on Delphian Records in 2016, see my review). But it is a striking moment with Lotti's use of chromaticism and suspensions, and her the ensemble made quite a strong sound and clearly relished the forward-looking harmonies.

Peter Phillips and the ensemble finished with a group of motets by Monteverdi, from a group published by one of his former pupils, Giovanni Bianchini, in 1620, preceded by a setting of the 'Crucifixus'. Almost certainly the would have used a mixture of voices and instruments, but the motets reflect the way music was changing. 'Crucifixus' (four-part, sung by just give sings, Altos, Tenors and Bass) was a piece of chromatic polyphony, very dark and rather severe. The motet, Adoramus te, Christe, was much more our concept of Monteverdi, homophonic with individual voices being allowed to flower out of the texture, sung in expressive style by the whole group. Domine, ne in fuore was similar in construction but had a far busier texture that, frankly, seemed to cry out for instrumental colours too. Finally Cantate Domino sung with a happy bounce and lovely sense of dancing.

As an encore we were treated to more Lotti, another 'Crucifixus' movement, this time in 10 parts. If the performances did not seem quite vintage Tallis Scholars, there was much to enjoy and there was much to fascinate and illuminate too , with a nice blend of familiar and unfamiliar.

The group returns to Choral at Cadogan to close the 2017/18 series with a programme which includes Tallis' Spem in alium.

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