Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Spem in Alium review – 40 glorious parts from The Tallis Scholars

5 June 2024

The Tallis Scholars present a programme of English Tudor choral music, concluding with Thomas Tallis’ epic motet.

Tallis Scholars

The Tallis Scholars (Photo: Hugo Glendinning)

The Tallis Scholars, with over five decades of live performances and 75 recordings on their own record label (Gimmell) behind them, are well-established and well-loved exponents of choral music, mostly from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. There’s little, really, that another review can add to the paeans already written about their excellence, and Wednesday evening’s concert at Cadogan Hall was no exception in terms of the group’s brilliance at interpreting the material, and their precise attention to balance, tone, dynamic and speed. As always, their founder, Peter Phillips, was at the helm, directing with minimal gesture, and it is to his consummate understanding of polyphony and determined musicological research that the group (and, indeed, the wider world of Early Music) owes so much of its interpretation and performance practice.

For this concert, the group chose to present a rainbow of choral works that covered the tempestuous changes in religious practice across the English Tudor period, taking in complex Latin works of pre-Reformation Catholicism, pieces in English – as stolid and plain as a box pew – from Edward VI’s severe Protestant tradition, openly Catholic works from Mary I’s brief reign, and some of William Byrd’s ambiguous Latin works, probably written for Recusant Catholics in Elizabth I’s reign, that, because of royal favour, he just about got away with.

It was in demonstrating the contrast between these various styles of writing that the group really showed their mettle. The straightforward polyphony and quiet homophonic passages of William Mundy’s O Lord, the maker of all things and John Sheppard’s The Lord’s Prayer were delivered with subtle simplicity and attention (as practice demanded) to text, whereas the waves of imitative polyphony bouncing between voice parts in Tallis’ Loquebantur variis linguis and the slow, intense repetitions of Mundy’s Adolescentulus sum ego pointed up the opulence of the musical material. Balance was the watchword for all the accounts, and, although the base unit of 16 singers changed (sometimes 10, 12 or 14), each piece was perfectly judged for the contribution given by each singer. Particularly effective, in this regard, was Mundy’s Vox Patris caelestis whose lengthy text is leavened by the different combinations assigned to each section of the six voice parts, the contrasting textures of which were managed with precision.

“It was in demonstrating the contrast between these various styles of writing that the group really showed their mettle”

The two pieces by William Byrd – Domine quis habitabit and Ne irascaris, Domine/Civitas sanci tui – were really the stars of the show (we’ll come to the Tallis shortly). Byrd’s genius in word painting, as well as his compositional playfulness, are well known, and the group brought all of their skill to presenting these. Domine quis habitat has more false relations in it than a Mafia wedding, and the singers made sure that each of these was brought to our attention to present a glorious bombarde of overlapping lines glittering with little moments of astringency. The despair of Ne irascaris/Civitas is transmitted in the way that Byrd writes his quiet, intense, often homophonic, statements of the phrases that contain the word ‘deserta’, and every one of these, thanks to the group’s brilliant control of tone and dynamic, induced a shiver in the listener; likewise, the mournful pleas of ‘Ecce’ (‘Behold, see, we are all thy people’) were intensified with each repetition to wring every scintilla of emotion from the text.

Thomas Tallis’ 40 part motet Spem in alium needs no introduction. Famous for its scope (those huge scores!), it has been recorded and performed many times (the Tallis Scholars made a benchmark recording in 1985), and is perhaps one of the few works of English Renaissance choral music known outside specialist circles. Joined for this by another 24 singers (such that there was one voice to a part), the ensemble opted to present the work standing in two lines (upper parts in front, tenor and bass behind). The piece is often performed with each of the eight choirs separated, but this formation allowed Tallis’ ‘stereophonic’ set-up (choirs echoing/imitating each other) to have a marked effect in an oblong space, and the net result was magical. The singing was faultless throughout (it’s a notorious piece for getting lost in), and the outcome – the musical material shifting across the space; the moments of quiet interplay between just a few voices; the ‘wall of sound’ of the first homophonic ‘respice’ – was impressive.

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