An evening with the Tallis Scholars always promises to be a special event, and their recital in Hamer Hall on November 6 was no exception. The Scholars’ recital canvassed two main bodies of repertoire, a central section of contemporary music (stretching over the interval) bookended by the repertoire for which they have become justly famous — music of the English and Continental Renaissance.
The focus of the music was very much on the music of Tallis, Byrd and Philips. The Scholars opened with two large-scale works, each of about eight minutes, Philips’ Cecilia virgo for double choir and Tallis’ seven-part Suscipe quaeso. Cecilia virgo sees Philips in that Gabrieli-esque mode of many of his larger motets, and the Scholars invested it with the right measure of burnished and solemn magnificence. The mellifluous Suscipe quaeso, one of Tallis’ most important works, treads the line between the complexity of his predecessors — beloved by Queen Mary, in whose reign it was written — and the newer, more harmonic style of a composer such as Philips. Notwithstanding the great length of this motet, the Scholars maintained a gorgeously radiant sound and close attention to the emotional and rhetorical power of the words (especially the heartfelt peccavi — “I have sinned!” and quis sustineat — “who may abide?”). They also clearly revelled in the harmonic world of the composer, replete with its false relations.
This was an exemplary performance, and itself worth the price of admission. Two unequal settings of the Lamentations followed, the first a densely characterised and monumental account of Tallis’ setting (heard in a recent Ensemble Gombert concert) and the second the less interesting setting by Dominique Phinot, whose star has risen after the 2009 recording of his music (including this work) by the Brabant Ensemble. The chief merit of the Phinot setting — its separation of its textural material into sections for upper and lower voices — allowed the Scholars to show off their command of unity of sound. The remaining Renaissance works on the program were Clemens’ magnificent Ego flos campi, Crecquillon’s Andreas Christi famulus and Byrd’s Tribue Domine. The first saw the Scholars return to the kind of massive polychorality of Philips’ Cecilia virgo. Here, faced with the kind of unremitting texture Philips avoids, the Scholars created a dense but rhythmically acute tapestry of sound. Crecquillon’s motet, a product of the pre-Palestrina period dominated by figures such as Gombert, allowed little scope for fine characterisation and the Scholars’ investment in creating colouristic difference through texture.
The program ended with Byrd’s Tribue Domine. I question the wisdom of this choice — it is a very long work with which to end a program (over 13 minutes) and, frankly, not one of Byrd’s most interesting motets — and the Scholars were clearly vocally wearied by its end.
The most unsuccessful part of the program was the selection of the three contemporary works that comprised the centre of the program, Pärt’s setting of the genealogy of Christ ‘Which was the Son of…’ before interval and Muhly’s Recordare, Domine and Tavener’s As one who has slept after it. I am all in favour of contemporary music, but it seems that choral directors either have trouble finding great works or composers have trouble writing them. The weakest pieces in this trio were by the best known of the composers. Pärt’s setting of the excruciatingly dull genealogy text was both harmonically and rhythmically monotonous and Tavener’s work almost completely eschewed both harmony and rhythm.
Peter Phillips’ interpretations of Renaissance music tend to let the music do the talking. This means that dynamic control is largely left to the ebb and flow of the texture’s density, rather than the conductor intruding anything of his own. Over the course of an evening, this can lead one to suspect that the Scholars do not “do” dynamics. At least one advantage of this contemporary music bracket was to disprove that thesis — they can do dynamics, and powerful ones at that. Choral groups must do contemporary music and, God willing, they will find something worthy of them.
Hearing the Scholars live (re)confirmed for me perceptions I have had of them in recordings. First, they make forcibly the case that a choir must have singers that are worth listening to in its ranks — well trained, with voices that are beautiful as instruments. This may seem obvious, but — as it turns out — most choirs do not fulfil this basic requirement. They are also sharp as an ensemble, at the levels of group control, attack and intention. Peter Phillips seems only to give a slight move of the hand to set the machine inevitably, and wonderfully, into action: the singers do the rest. They also have an almost unerring accuracy of pitch, even in comparatively complex music and at the end of a long recital.
The only criticism I have of them is precisely how their sound is composed. Time and again I found myself revelling in the sound of all the men — the male alto, two tenors and two basses — all of whom seemed strongly characterised in my mind, making individually powerful and intelligent contributions even if, occasionally, there was a little too much of one voice or another. I do not doubt that the women brought the same amount of intelligence to their work, but Phillips evidently prefers an absolutely homogenous sound in his women that masks their individuality and, at times, leads to a certain monotony of sound.
Taking a risk on a more individual sound would raise this ensemble to levels that would cause the Angelic choir itself to fear for its reputation.