Opera + Classical Music Reviews

The Tallis Scholars / Phillips @ St John’s Smith Square, London

21 December 2016

St John's Smith Square

St John’s Smith Square (Photo: Matthew Andrews)

The Tallis Scholars have been the leading British exponents of Renaissance vocal polyphony for over forty years, and while membership of the group has changed, the first-class blended sound they make has remained constant. Wednesday night saw them present a programme of music appropriate for the Christmas season, and, as always, their director, Peter Phillips had planned an appropriate, if somewhat sombre, programme, which was delivered with the usual excellence and attention to detail.

The first half featured Cipriano de Rore’s lengthy and beautiful Missa Praeter rerum seriem (from the text ‘Beyond the order of this world, the Virgin Mother bore God in human form’). The mass, written in seven parts, is based not only on a cantus firmus, but is also a ‘parody’ mass, incorporating material from Josquin Desprez’ motet of the same name, and written in homage to Josquin (described by Martin Luther as ‘the master of notes’.) As an introduction to the work, the Tallis Scholars performed Josquin’s original at the start of the concert. The motet and the opening Kyrie of the mass begin in the lower parts, and gradually unfold against the solid cantus firmus in the tenor line, a magical effect which the Tallis Scholars created with their usual sure and unmodulated sound. The mass itself is full of lines of overlapping polyphony – often in descending scales (representative of Christ’s descent to earth) – and the group gave this effect full weight, presenting the audience with a mesmerizing 30 minutes of music by one of the great masters of the early 16th century.

The second half of the concert opened with de Rore’s six part motet Hodie Christus natus est, whose complex busyness the group took, as always, in their stride. Victoria’s Magnificat Primi Toni à 8 is arguably Victoria’s most complex setting of the Annunciation text – rather than (as is usual with many Renaissance settings of the canticle) set alternatim verses of plainsong and polyphony, Victoria opted for a fully polyphonic through-composition in which changes in texture are created through the use of fewer voices in particular verses. It was given a brilliant performance, and the flowering of the Essurientes section from three- to eight-part counterpoint was particularly stunning.

Two settings of Salve Regina also featured in the second half: one of these, a complex four-part work by Hernando Franco – a Spanish composer who emigrated to Guatamala – represented the music of the Spanish New World. Alas, however, the Salve Regina by Claudin de Sermisy listed in the programme was not performed, and instead, the group presented the same text as set, in double canon, by Josquin; It was given an excellent account, but was sadly much less musically interesting than the piece it replaced.

The concert closed with one of John Taverner’s large motets, O splendour Gloriae – effectively a journey from creation to redemption in five stanzas. Again, the group brought out the text well, showcasing Taverner’s melismatic style, and bringing out the contrasting sections for three, four and five voices.

Wednesday night marked the counter-tenor Patrick Craig’s last appearance with the Tallis Scholars, and as a farewell gift, they encored the evening with a tremendous performance of Lassus’s Omnes de Saba.

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