BBC Proms reviews

Prom 8: Tallis Scholars/Phillips @ Royal Albert Hall, London

22 July 2008

Peter Phillips

Peter Phillips

At last year’s Proms The Tallis Scholars made history with a modern-day premiere of Striggio’s astonishing Mass for 40 and 60 voices. They couldn’t hope to match such magnitude this time round, but Prom 8 proved a thought-provoking, if rather cerebral, project nonetheless.

And what this group, demonstrated, once again, is their ability to imbue so-called ‘ancient music’ with contemporary resonance. Focus was given to two parodic masses by Jacob Obrecht and Josquin Des Prez, two composers who towered over the fifteenth-century Franco-Flemish school, and indeed European music-making for centuries to come.

These pieces, both entitled ‘Malheur me bat’ (‘Misfortune has struck me’), were based on an eponymous chanson that is attributed to Johannes Ockenghem, and which formed the three-minute pivot of the evening. Until now this fragile fragment has only existed as a lute arrangement, but the piece has recently been exhumed, so to speak, with a reconstructed text by the French poet Jacques Darras, and rearranged for three voices.

As their title suggests, both the masses are somewhat severe, and the concert’s late scheduling lent an additional, vespertine intensity to the performance. It was a lesson in polyphony from two of the most celebrated proponents; Josquin’s composition is sharper, cleverer perhaps, than Obrecht’s ornamental meanderings, but both are structured by similarly organic progressions now consoling, now unsettling though not yet inflected by those weird mannerist contortions found in the later music of Gesualdo or Palestrina. Each mass gives the impression of a great sprawling piece, though neither lasts longer than 40 minutes, and plunges one into a trance-like rapture akin to that inspired by Indian ragas, communicating a strong sense of spirituality, even in this godless age.

Despite that, one couldn’t help wishing we were somewhere cold, white and ecclesiastical rather than inside that big, brash lump of Victoriana (given the circumstances, a prone position in the Prommers’ pit would have been advisable) and inevitably the acoustics lacked subtlety and definition. The instinctive rhythms and economic expression of this music almost belie the genius behind its conception, and the great precision required for its successful delivery, but The Tallis Scholars, under Peter Phillips’ direction, gave an immaculate performance. Whilst one cannot doubt the musicianship, nor the ‘archaeological’ significance of the project, however, it couldn’t help but be overshadowed by its surroundings.

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Prom 8: Tallis Scholars/Phillips @ Royal Albert Hall, London