Friday 22 December 2023

A welcome relief from regular Christmas fare: the Tallis Scholars introduce us to the subtle riches of Jacobus Clemens non Papa

The Tallis Scholars (Photo: Hugo Glendinning)
The Tallis Scholars (Photo: Hugo Glendinning)

Jacobus Clemens non Papa: Missa Pastores quidnam vidistis, Victoria, Pedro de Cristo, Giovanni Croce, Obrecht, Peter Philips; The Tallis Scholars, Peter Phillips; St John's Smith Square
Reviewed 21 December 2023

Coming to the end of their 50th anniversary year, the group's Christmas programme focuses on the shepherds with a low-key and beautiful subtle account of Clemens non Papa's mass

Peter Phillips and the Tallis Scholars have been celebrating the group's 50th anniversary this year and they brought the celebratory year to a close at St John's Smith Square, where the group gave its first London concert in 1976.

As part of St John's Smith Square's Christmas Festival on Thursday 21 December 2023, Peter Phillips conducted the Tallis Scholars in a programme entitled While Shepherd's Watched which centred on Jacobus Clemens non Papa's Missa Pastores quidnam vidistis along with the motet on which it was based, along with other motets on similar texts by Victoria, Pedro de Cristo and Giovanni Croce, plus motets by Obrecht and Peter Philips. The concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3, which means that it is available for 30 days on BBC Sounds.

Not a great deal of biographical information is known about the Flemish composer Jacobus Clemens (aka Jacques Clément) and even his nickname, 'non Papa', is the subject of discussion. Most of his surviving music is sacred, and he never seems to have visited Italy, so that his music is particular local variety of the Franco-Flemish style that was popular in Europe.

We began with Clemens non Papa's motet, Pastores quidnam vidistis, gently expressive with the performers relishing the civilised polyphony. The Kyrie of the mass continued this same sense of well-moulded polyphonic lines, though here the phrases were long and smooth. The second Kyrie worked itself up but all ended in calm. The Gloria was more pointed and what you noticed here was the clarity of the words. For much of the movement, the music motored on with just subtle variations, and only in the middle, did the momentum slow to something more considered, before picking up again to the end.

This was followed by Victoria's motet, Quen vidistis pastores? setting a similar text that used by Clemens non Papa. Here we had slow moving, well-spaced lines; Victoria brought contrast between the sections, but the overall impression was of a simplicity of means used to devastating effect. 

Pedro de Cristo was a Portuguese contemporary of Victoria; he spent his time as a monk in Portugal and did not publish any of his music. His motet, Quaeramus cum pastoribus was set for four voices, alto, tenor, baritone, bass, the voices in quite a narrow compass, the slow moving lines interweaving in a striking manner. His contemporary, Giovanni Croce (Monteverdi's predecessor at St Mark's) used a longer version of the same text for his double-choir motet. Here we had short phrases tossed about in dialogue between the two choirs, yet with an interesting clarity of texture. All in all, rather engaging.

After the interval we returned to Clemens non Papa's mass with the Credo, this moved with vigour yet still preserved that particularity of texture and sound-world. Like the Gloria, this movement motored on with just the 'Et incarnatus est' as a more calmly intimate moment.

Two Marian motets followed. First a six-part Salve regina by Jacob Obrecht; the earliest piece in the programme and one of the earliest (if not the earliest) surviving six-part motets. Based on plainchant, there were chant sections but also chant running through the polyphonic ones. There was a sculptural quality to the music, rich of texture but calmly unfolding. Rather wonderful.

Peter Philips, writing a century after Obrecht, used double choir and here we had swift-moving, intricate detail as the choirs answered each other. Philips was a Roman Catholic exile and should perhaps be understood in relation to his European contemporaries rather than the English tradition.

We finished with the Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei of the mass. Gentle undulating lines and subtle changes of mood, with the lovely Benedictus on three solo voices and to finish the low-key but beautifully expressive Agnus Dei. There was an encore, a fascinating Salva nos Domine by Jean Mouton.

This was a lovely programme, quite low key and subtle in the choice of music and definitely a welcome relief from regular Christmas fare.

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