Beauty of Sound and Meaning by The Tallis Scholars in Cardiff

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Tallis, Byrd, Sheppard, The Choristers of St. John’s College, Cardiff Metropolitan Cathedral Choir,  The Tallis Scholars, Peter Phillips (director)  St. David’s Hall, Cardiff, 3.5.2012 (GPu)

Tallis: Spem in Alium
: Loquebantur variis linguis
Nine Tunes for Archbishop Parker’s Psalter
: In manus tuas III
: Tribue domine
: Laudibus in sanctis
: Sacris solemniis
: Lamentations I
: Miserere
: Spem in alium

Like any good ‘Renaissance’ man, Peter Phillips evidently has a well developed sense of symmetry. This beautifully designed  – and beautifully sung – programme was book-ended by performances of Tallis’ 40-part motet Spem in Alium; as Alexander Coghlan’s programme notes reminded us, this is a work of which “the midpoint falls exactly at bar 40, at which symbolically significant moment we hear all 40 voices simultaneously for the first time”. Between the two performances of Spem in Alium Phillips programmed two more works by Tallis, one by Sheppard, two by Byrd, another one by Sheppard and two more by Tallis – to form a programme in which the first half exactly mirrored the second! Phillips’ understanding of the Renaissance does, of course, exist at a deeper level too, as was thoroughly evidenced by the well-informed and appropriate sophistication his choir brought to their work, as they have so often on record and in concert; this a choir with a sure-footed sense of the Renaissance idiom.

For their two performances of Spem in Alium, the Tallis Scholars were joined by two excellent local choirs, with singers from St. John’s College, the choir school of the Cardiff Metropolitan cathedral, and from the choir of the Cathedral itself. Given the complex demands and scale of Tallis’ piece all concerned acquitted themselves well (the Cardiff singers had been prepared by Dominic Neville). But, more or less inevitably, there was an air of nervous caution to proceedings; nothing went seriously wrong, but there was an inhibited quality to both performances (less so in the second). Even so, it was a joy to hear this astonishing piece, one of the great works of the English Renaissance – in whatever art form.

Elsewhere the Tallis Scholars were, as it were, unaccompanied, in various configurations. It would be redundant to itemise piece-by-piece their performance since it was almost uniformly excellent. One highlight was Loquebantur variis linguis, a responsory for Pentecost, the seven-part writing of which (the use of seven parts presumably designed to make us think of the seven Pentecostal gifts of the Holy Spirit), which was sung with a joyous radiance:

Repleti sunt omnes Spiritu Sancto, et ceperunt loqui.
Magnalia Dei, alleluia

They were filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak.
The wonderful works of God, alleluia.

‘God Grant Me Grace’, from the Nine Tunes for Archbishop Parker’s Psaltery was sung with an exquisite, tender strength of prayerful desire that will stay with me for a long time. Sheppard’s In Manuas Tuas  – the third of the composer’s three settings – got a powerfully meditative reading, Sheppard’s dissonances ensuring that it also had a certain urgency. Byrd’s Laudibus in Sanctis, a paraphrase of Psalm 150, had a delightfully Terpsichorean momentum, textually and musically full of celebratory and affirmative religious Joy. This was a performance which perfectly demonstrated both Byrd’s sensitivity to verbal nuance and the alertness to the relationship between music and word that a choir as good as the Tallis Scholars bring to their work. Perhaps the finest performance of all came in the first set of Tallis’ Lamentations. Here was a reading full of dark but un-oppressive gravity, singing of immense dignity, full of beautifully articulated tonal beauty which yet never drew attention merely to itself, but rather to the ‘meaning’ perfectly achieved in the union of text and music. This was one of those moments when applause seemed vulgar at the close of the performance.

The musical life of South Wales is well-served by orchestral concerts – both by orchestras based in the area and by visiting orchestras; chamber music is pretty well served too. So are some kinds of choral singing – we are, after all, talking about Wales. But performances of Renaissance polyphony of this quality are not so commonly heard – and those who plan concerts at St. David’s Hall in Cardiff are to be warmly thanked for booking a choir such as the Tallis Scholars. I hope that the healthy attendance, and that audience’s clear delight in what they heard, will encourage further such visits by the finest British specialists in this music.

Glyn Pursglove