Review: The Tallis Scholars

Peter Phillips directing
Dec. 2, River Road Church, Baptist

The capacity crowd hearing the Tallis Scholars’ “A Renaissance Christmas,” a collection of 15th- and 16th-century pieces by Giovanni Palestrina, Hieronymus Praetorius, William Byrd and John Nesbett, had, as one of those attending remarked after the program, “an extraordinary experience” – a two-hour immersion in music that, on grand and intimate scales, was crafted to transport the listener.

Listeners of those times desperately needed such transportation and elevation. The Renaissance was a cultural reawakening in Europe – these compositions are among its most glittering ornaments; but living, even for the most privileged, meant running a gauntlet of perils, from disease to civil and religious strife. Heavenly music, and the motivation to create it, must mean more when life is hellish.

Peter Phillips’ 10-voice ensemble, perhaps the world’s leading exponent of Renaissance vocal music, made more of these selections than might have been expected. The stylistic fluency and brilliant collective vocal technique that distinguish the Tallis Scholars’ many recordings was fully realized; but so was an expressive edge, the emergence of individual and group voices as celebrants and storytellers, giving this live performance an immediacy that no recording could replicate.

This quality was most audible in representational or emotionally evocative passages, such as the references to angels rejoicing in Praetorius’ adaptation of the carol “In dulci jubilo” (“In quiet joy”) in his Magnificat V, or of Herod’s slaughter of the innocents in Byrd’s Lullaby, or, most strikingly, in the aural representation of the aurora australis in “Rough Notes,” a work by Nico Muhly based on the diaries of Robert Scott from his doomed Antarctic expedition of 1912.

The Muhly work, receiving its second performance following its premiere on Dec. 1 in New York, was not as out-of-place on a Renaissance program as it promised (or threatened) to be. The 37-year-old American composer, who as a boy chorister developed an ear for early music, employs some quasi-Renaissance techniques and effects in his post-modern style. He cleverly manipulates the Scott texts, which foreshadow death, to implicitly promise rebirth at the end.

The program’s peak of technical flair and exuberance came, not surprisingly, in Palestrina’s motet “Hodie Christus natus est” (“Today Christ is born”) and the subsequent “parody” Mass built upon the motet. Palestrina was the undisputed master of florid polyphonic choral writing in the 16th century – his music can be heard as a sonic template for the wildly ornate interior decor of baroque churches – and these Christmas works are intricate constructs of musical filagree designed to convey joy in the highest.

The Tallis Scholars reached for and attained those heights, savoring every phrase and tonal effect. These performances also showed the group’s sensitivity to the acoustic of the River Road Church sanctuary, exploiting the space’s high resonance to enlarge its sound while keeping complex vocal lines untangled. (Or so it sounded from a third-row pew.)

The ensemble was no less impressive in the Praetorius and in Nesbett’s Magnificat, a 15th-century work preserved in the Eton Choirbook. Each, in its way, poses more of an expressive challenge than Palestrina’s motet and Mass.

Nesbett’s work is more churchy than earthly, only marginally advanced from the formulaic style of medieval liturgical music, requiring subtly modulated injections of flesh and blood to bring the piece to life. The Praetorius is a stylistic mishmash, alternating between chants with elaborated responses and settings of the familiar German carols “In dulci jubilo” and “Joseph, lieber Joseph mein” (“Joseph, my dear Joseph”), requiring an interpretation that swings without awkwardness between high-church and folkish inflections.

Phillips and his singers followed their announced program with an encore of another contemporary work, “The Lamb,” John Tavener’s hauntingly delicate setting of the poem by William Blake.

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