The Tallis Scholars’ Reflections formed their contribution to the St John’s Christmas Festival this year, and the group, under its founder-director, Peter Phillips, chose to present music from the Renaissance and the 20th century, focused around five texts from the liturgy, most of which were preceded by an iteration of their original plainsong chants.
The three Marian texts (Salve regina, Ave Maria and the Magnificat canticle) were all appropriate for Advent, but the relevance to the season of O sacrum convivium, an antiphon from Corpus Christi (also used as a communion anthem) and Angelus Domini descendit (the proclamation of the Resurrection to the disciples on Easter morning) was more difficult to fathom. Notwithstanding this, the ensemble, as always, was on good form, with blend, accuracy and attention to dynamic and speed all to the fore.
Renaissance polyphony is, of course, the Tallis Scholars’ core repertoire, and there was no shortage of excellent interpretations from across the genre. William Cornysh’s Salve regina and Ave Maria both use text beyond the standard, and the group brought this out nicely (particularly the extensions of ‘O clemens’ and ‘O pia’ in the Salve), accentuating Cornysh’s clever part-writing, and delivering the extended melismas – characteristic of this early period of polyphony – with attention to line and sense. The four lower voices singing his Ave Maria were beautifully blended, and the gentle buzz put one in mind of a quartet of dulcians.
The little known Tiburtio Massaino was represented by his Angelus Domini setting and, judging by the exquisitely rippled Alleluias that closed the piece, here is a composer to explore further. The group brought their accuracy of pitch to bear in pinging out the characteristically English false relations of Tallis’ setting of O sacrum convivium, and the contrasts of duple and triple time in Lassus’ setting of Angelus Domini gave accent and meaning to the text.
From the New World, Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla’s two choir setting of Salve was full of delicious polyphonic imitation – particularly the ‘gementes et flentes’ section in the upper voices – and once again, the group demonstrated a sure understanding of the idiom, although it was odd that, though this piece makes considerable use of the Gregorian solemn plainchant setting of Salve, it was preceded by a recitation of the much more modern chant.
Other polychoral polyphonic works were equally successful: in Giovanni Gabrieli’s Angelus Domini the Venetian atmosphere was summoned in the contrasting of legato passages with punchy, echoed interjections (‘iam surrexit’), and for Tomás Luis de Victoria’s arguably most resplendent setting of the Magnificat, the Primi Toni, the group brought perfect balance to the two unequally voiced choirs.
The more homophonic pieces were largely from the 20th century, although the fumed-oak Protestant no-nonsense text delivery requirement was elegantly observed in the performance of William Byrd’s Short-Service Magnificat. The two works by Francis Poulenc – his 1941 Salve regina and a clever a cappella arrangement by Jeremy White of the Ave Maria from his opera Dialogues des Carmélites – were given precise accounts, once again, the group’s spot-on pitching demonstrating the quirky beauty of Poulenc’s modern harmonies; there was, however, a touch of the clinical about the accounts, which one felt might have been warmer, and which contrasted noticeably with the bewitching tone brought to the performance of Messiaen’s even more harmonically spiky O sacrum convivium, which became a consummate demonstration of how to contrast 50 shades of quiet singing. A sensitive, simple account of Michael Praetorius’ Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen made for a perfect seasonal farewell.