The Tallis Scholars in Concert

Victoria and Palestrina: The Tallis Scholars, Peter Phillips (conductor). Cadogan Hall, London 10.5.2011 (MB)

Victoria – Dum complerentur
Palestrina – Dum complerentur
Victoria – Lamentations for Maundy Thursday
Victoria – Lamentations for Holy Saturday
Palestrina – Tribulationes civitatum
Victoria – Vidi speciosam
Palestrina – Tu es Petrus

A funny programme for May, let alone such a May of such unseasonable warmth: to open with two Whitsun motets, thence to retreat to Holy Week, before a final thaw. Moreover, though Cadogan Hall hosts a good number of choral concerts, it is perhaps not the most obvious venue for Renaissance polyphony: the former Christian Scientist church looks and feels more inclined at least to English nonconformism. The acoustic, good in itself, took a little getting used to – and I wondered whether this was the case for the Tallis Scholars too. At any rate, Victoria’s setting of the Pentecostal text, Dum complerentur, at times sounded a little thin. However, the Tallis Scholars’ accustomed smoothness of phrasing provided continuity, and by the time of the final ‘alleluia’, bells – or should that be tongues? – could be heard a-rejoicing. Palestrina’s responsory setting of the same text offered a fascinating contrast. ‘Older’ and ‘purer’ were two comparative adjectives that came to mind, but equally apparent was greater sturdiness of rhythm, at times presaging Handel. Imitative writing came across keenly in the present performance, Palestrina’s version sounding fuller in tone than Victoria’s, though the performers were two fewer in number. Peccantem me quotidie seems to hark back still further in time; Alexandra Coghlan’s booklet note rightly mentioned Franco-Flemish style as an influence upon Palestrina. Just as striking was the sonority of intimate contrition, to which the Tallis Scholars brought a rather English – and I mean ‘English’ rather than ‘Anglican’ – tonal quality.

The centrepieces to this concert, positioned either side of the interval, were two Victoria sets of Lamentations: those for Matins on Maundy Thursday and Holy Saturday. Phrasing proved as seamless as in the opening motet, but the performances continued to sound more at ease. I was especially taken by the mood of dignified sadness to the first set, putting me in mind, perhaps fancifully, of the dark Escorial. Victoria now seemed to be heard – which, in terms of the programming he was – through the auditory prism of Palestrina. The second refrain of ‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem, convertere ad Dominum Deum tuum’ (‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem, turn to the Lord thy God’) sounded especially plangent. The equivalent passage in the Holy Saturday set suffered from slight imprecision upon the cadence of the second ‘Jerusalem’, but otherwise the performances impressed. By the time of the final refrain, there was initially a not inappropriate impression of near-weariness, but the imprecation to turn to the Lord elicited a final, sonorous bloom.

After two considerable doses of Victoria, the dawning of Palestrina’s Tribulationes civitatum again heralded a sense of almost ‘classical’ purity. This is never, of course, a composer to wear his heart upon his sleeve: words were permitted broodingly to tell of our sinful plight, without impinging duly upon musical progression. A brighter note was struck in the final two motets. A Song of Songs text, composer, and performers brought new warmth to Victoria’s Vidi speciosam, even if I can imagine other groups imparting a greater sense of the erotic. There was an apt sense of Petrine certainty to be heard in Palestrina’s Tu es Petrus. Fuller tone was employed, though a performance more overtly jubilant might have conveyed the message more strongly.

Mark Berry