Whatever its other acoustic challenges, the Albert Hall usually accommodates unaccompanied singing quite well, and so it was with the Tallis Scholars’ exploration of Compline (the last of the daily liturgical offices) for the late Prom on Thursday evening, the sung processional entry of Hildegard of Bingen’s quirky, almost-plainchant-over-a-drone Ordo virtutum and In principio omnes, the low lighting and the remarkable hush of the audience adding a monastic frisson to the occasion.
As always, the Tallis Scholars under Peter Phillips (with the all-female plainsong choir being directed at the organ by Patrick Craig) turned in a programme of outstanding performances that included, in addition to the Hildegard, works by Gutiérrez de Padilla, Jacobus Gallus, Gregorio Allegri, Thomas Tallis, John Browne and, to add a soupçon of the contemporary, Arvo Pärt.
The sixteenth-century composers are, of course, stock fare for the group, and they marked up the subtle contrasts between the works well. The pre-baroque duple-against-triple-time effects in de Padilla’s Deus in adiutorum were unforced, giving the piece the rhythmic freedom it needs, and de Padilla’s more complex writing for double choir was contrasted well with the simpler echo passages of the more homophonic Pater noster by Gallus. Tallis’ equally homophony-heavy festal setting of the Compline hymn Te lucis ante terminum was given a low-and-slow treatment that highlighted its prominence as the main Latin hymn of the office.
The Tallis Scholars – normally a group who are steeped in historically informed performance – always seem to choose the anachronistic 19th-century variant of Allegri’s Miserere as their standard, presumably because of the popularity of the ethereal (and mistakenly copied) top C. The appeal to the popular is forgivable, but it is always a bit of a let-down when more scholarly performing editions (containing sometimes even more breathtaking decorations) aren’t given the exposure they deserve. As it was, their account was its usual textbook self (and employed the more historically informed tonus peregrinus for its plainsong alternatim sections), and the placing of the smaller of the two choirs in the gallery wove its inevitable enchantment.
The two most moving performances of the evening, though, were of Pärt’s short but expressive Nunc Dimittis and Browne’s stunningly complex example of 15th-century polyphony O Maria salvatoris mater. The former piece contained moments that were so quiet and precisely co-ordinated that they felt as though they had precipitated from the air, and the choir made a first-rate job of performing Pärt’s unmistakable tintinnabuli harmonies, such that the repeated sounding of a cluster of small bells was palpable.
Browne’s Marian anthem from the Eton Choirbook is far removed from the style of the later polyphonists; centred around a cantus firmus, the piece is full of melismatic decoration and free-flowing rhythm, with the bulk of the verses sung by smaller groups within the choir whose voice-parts change, adding or subtracting sonorities to emphasise the text. It was given a top-notch performance that demonstrated the Tallis Scholars’ unique feel for the material that they are so steeped in; the full-choir sections (with that unmistakable 15th-century spread from very high sopranos to very low basses with the complex weaving of a multitude of mid-range parts in between) were spine-tingling.
The only downside to such liturgical re-creations is the large quantity of psalmody that the Breviary obliges, and while a little exemplar plainchant offers a welcome dry biscuit between the rich courses of polyphony, too much (in this case the whole of Psalms 4 and 91), however nicely sung (and it was), results in the onset of ennui. A small deviation from the Benedictine strictures might have allowed time for the greedy among us to have had another helping of delicious polyphony.