Sunday 23 December 2018

Seasonal touches: The Tallis Scholars at St John's Smith Square

Peter Phillips & The Tallis Scholars
Peter Phillips & The Tallis Scholars (Photo Nick Rutter)
H. Praetorius, Byrd, Eccard, Part, Rutter, Victoria; The Tallis Scholars, Peter Phillips; St John's Smith Square Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 21 December 2018 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Music from the 16th to the 21st centuries in programme with Seasonal touches

At first sight, Peter Phillips and the Tallis Scholars' programme at St John's Smith Square on 21 December 2018 as part of the 33rd Christmas Festival was not particularly seasonal. Except that including two settings of the Magnificat (by Hieronymous Praetorius and by Tomas Luis da Victoria) made reference to the current season of Advent whilst that of Praetorius was in fact highly seasonal as it interpolated vernacular Christmas carols. Alongside these two, we hear two settings of the Nunc Dimittis (the two canticles are associated in the Anglican church but not in the Roman Catholic) by Johannes Eccard (in German) and William Byrd (in Latin), plus two large-scale Latin motets by Byrd, Tribue Domine and Laudibus in Sanctis, and a pair of contemporary works, Arvo Part's hymn to the Virgin of Guadalupe, Virgencita, and John Rutter's Hymn to the Creator of Light.

We began with the Praetorius which mixes the macaronic carols Joseph, lieber Joseph mein and In dulci jubilo (in German and Latin), with the Latin Magnificat. Praetorious's Magnificat setting is quite four square, yet with dancing textures, which contrasted with the lilting carols, the result made a pleasing mix and added a pleasingly celebratory feel to the Magnificat. The programme was then intended to move on to Byrd's Nunc Dimittis but as Peter Phillips felt the first half was too short, the choir slipped in Johannes Eccard's German setting which relates to the Nunc Dimittis and is known in English as 'When Mary to the temple went', a delightful piece. Byrd's Latin Nunc Dimittis comes from his Gradualia, not intended for Anglican Evensong but instead a setting of the Tract for the Feast of the Purification (Candlemas). It is a sober yet elaborate piece full of busy lines, and ends in a rather surprisingly sudden manner, perhaps because Byrd anticipated that the service's plainchant would take over, and in fact one could almost hear it.  

The first half finished with Byrd's large-scale motet to the Trinity, Tribue Domine, from the 1575 Tribue Domine. Byrd seems to have been concerned to project the text, with its enumerations of the virtues of the Trinity, and the texture was very homophonic enlivened with moving interior parts and with Byrd writing for a large variety of different groups apart from the full choir. As the work progressed, textures seemed to get richer and lines more elaborate as the long anticipated climax was reached with a spectacular 'Gloria patri'.

Another large-scale Byrd motet opened the second half, the highly celebratory Laudibus in sanctis; here the text is enumerating the different instrumental ways of celebrating God and Byrd grasps the opportunities fully with lots of vivid musical detail. Phillips, rather than concentrating on each section, kept the overall piece moving fluidly, flowing from one section to the other so that the vivid detail was kept firmly in context.  Byrd's short motet Laetentur caeli has a Seasonal link, despite the apparently generic celebratory text, as it is a Respond for Advent Sunday. Again we had a finely flowing performance enlivened with fine detail.

We then moved firmly into the contemporary era with Arvo Part's Virgencita, paying homage to Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City. The piece is quiet and highly concentrated, with a great use of repetition and of silence. Gradually textures thickened towards a stupendous climax, before ending where it had begun with stuttering words and silence. This was followed by John Rutter's Hymn to the Creator of Light which was written for the dedication of a window at Gloucester Cathedral to Herbert Howells. And it is Howells whose influence seems to hang over this striking piece, which leaves Rutter's 'hummable carol' persona far behind. Rutter uses the double choir to create some wonderfully radiant moments, and then incorporates the chorale Schmucke dich, magical.

We ended with another Magnificat this time Victoria on the First Tone. An eight-part setting which uses the double chorus to striking effect as Victoria uses two unqual groups, one SSAT and the other SATB. The piece is written with restraint yet the sober richness created a striking effect with the two groups operating in dialogue.

We were then treated to an encore which took us back to the contemporary. John Tavener's The Lamb.

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • The Dead City: Robert Carsen's new production of Korngold's masterpiece in Berlin (★★★★) - opera review
  • Cause for Celebration: Roxanna Panufnik on the Last Night of the Proms & commemorating the Centenary of Polish Independence - interview
  • The Sixteen at Christmas - The Little Child  at Cadogan Hall (★★★★) - concert review
  • A mash up of Gilbert & Sullivan and the Carry On films: Straus' The Pearls of Cleopatra at the Komische Oper, Berlin  (★★★★★) - opera review
  • Messiah in Berlin: Handel's oratorio staged in the Philharmonie (★★★★★) - music theatre review
  • A triumphal Messiah: Andrew Arthur and the Hanover Band at Kings Place  (★★★★★) - concert review
  • Towards the Global Jukebox - feature article
  • Echoes of Parsifal: songs and piano music by Robin Holloway on Delphian (★★★½) - CD review
  • Clarinettist dedications: Roeland Hendrikx in three contrasting concertos for clarinet (★★★½)  - CD review
  • Carols and more: Our annual Christmas disc round-up - CD review
  • Reviving Mozart in Wales & family connections in Milton Keynes: I chat to conductor Damian Iorio - my interview
  • Chocolate covered fairy-tale: Hänsel und Gretel at Covent Garden (★★★½) - opera review
  • Joyous discovery: Alessandro Scarlatti's Messa per il Santissimo Natale (★★★★)  - concert review
  • Powerful memorial: composer Andrew Smith on his Requiem dedicated to the victims of the 2011 Utøya massacre in Norway  - interview
  • Home

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