The Tallis Scholars in Tewkesbury Abbey: An Unforgettable Experience

 United KingdomUnited Kingdom Tallis, Palestrina, Allegri, Whitacre, Pärt, Byrd: The Tallis Scholars, Peter Phillips (director), Cheltenham Music Festival, Tewkesbury Abbey, 10.7.2013 (JQ)

Tallis – Loquebantur variis linguis
Palestrina – Missa Papae Marcelli
Allegri – Miserere
Eric Whitacre – Saint-Chapelle
Arvo Pärt – Nunc Dimittis
Tallis – Miserere
Byrd – Tribue Domine

The anniversaries of several composers – Britten, Poulenc, Verdi, and Wagner – are being celebrated in 2013 but artists have anniversaries too and this year is the fortieth anniversary of foundation of The Tallis Scholars. Peter Phillips and his group are marking this milestone with a world tour and the Cheltenham Festival pulled off something of a coup by inviting them to make Tewkesbury Abbey one of the stopping-off points in this odyssey. In many ways this was highly appropriate as Peter Phillips remarked, in a BBC interview during the interval, the group’s very first BBC broadcast came from the Abbey.

For this programme Phillips chose several polyphonic pieces that have been closely associated with The Tallis Scholars over the years. However, the group has performed more music of our own time than many people appreciate and two contemporary composers were represented in the second half. Eric Whitacre’s Saint-Chapelle was one of two works written for and premièred at The Tallis Scholars’ fortieth anniversary concert in St. Paul’s Cathedral last March. They recorded the piece at the same time: this was a welcome early opportunity to hear it live. When I reviewed the recording I commented that Whitacre “seems to have effected a seamless marriage of old and new in this piece; the music is undoubtedly of the 21st century, especially in its harmonic language, but I would think that it could fit very well indeed into a programme of the Renaissance music that is the staple fare of The Tallis Scholars.” This Tewkesbury performance confirmed me in that view. The music, which was marvellously performed here, plays to the strengths of The Tallis Scholars, I think, and Whitacre demonstrates a keen awareness of the way the group approaches the music it sings and his piece seems imaginatively to complement their core repertoire. The recording, available only as a download, is well worth hearing and the download can be accessed here. Pärt’s short Nunc Dimittis was an equally apposite choice. This is music stripped to its bare essentials; much of the time the tone is subdued and austere. Above all it demands the expert technical control that an ensemble such as this possesses.

The remainder of the programme consisted of Renaissance polyphony. Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli proved an engrossing experience. At the time that Palestrina composed this setting of the Mass there was considerable pressure from the Catholic Church for composers to eschew what was perceived to be excessive elaboration in music and to write instead music that enabled the words to be heard very clearly. If Palestrina composed this Mass as a riposte to those views he could scarcely have been more successful for his achievement in this setting is to achieve considerable textual clarity without any artistic compromises. This performance by The Tallis Scholars was noteworthy in several ways. Firstly, Peter Phillips used only eight voices (SATTBB) for most of the performance – two additional sopranos joined them for the Agnus Dei, where Palestrina’s scoring is fuller – and it was truly astonishing how much sound a ‘mere’ eight singers could generate, when required, without any suggestion of forcing the tone; there was a ‘buzz’ of vocal sound at ‘Pleni sunt caeli’ in the Sanctus, for example. Secondly, the use of such a small ensemble, meticulously prepared and balanced, ensured a marvellous clarity in the performance: words were consistently clear, even in a resonant acoustic, as were the polyphonic lines. Thirdly, and crucially, this was an exciting performance. In the Kyrie the music of Kyrie I and the Christe unfolded serenely but Peter Phillips injected urgency into Kyrie II. The Credo was often invested with life and energy, though the reflective ‘Et incarnatus’ brought some repose and wonderful rich textures; the closing pages were truly exuberant. The Agnus Dei contains some of the most beautiful music of all and this spacious performance was profoundly satisfying.

The Palestrina Mass is a work that The Tallis Scholars have performed many times over the last forty years but Allegri’s Miserere is the most frequently performed piece of all in their repertoire. In his absorbing book about The Tallis Scholars, What We Really Do, (review) Peter Phillips says that they had given 370 performances of it by the end of 2012 – often by request. Here was another one to add to the list. I’m afraid that this is a work that doesn’t do a great deal for me – it’s too repetitive, for one thing. However, this performance presented it in the best possible light, not least by dint of variety of textures. Instead of dividing the singing between two choirs, as most groups do, Peter Phillips performed the piece with the chant sections sung by a tenor cantor, as on The Tallis Scholars’ second recording of the work (review). This seems to me to work far better than the traditional way of giving the piece. Here we had the cantor positioned in the pulpit; the semi-chorus of four singers was placed in front of the high altar and well behind the other singers. This imaginative use of space worked very well.

It was fitting that the programme included music by the two Tudor masters, Tallis and Byrd. The Pentecost motet, Loquebantur variis linguis by Tallis opened the proceedings in a fluent and joyful performance. Much later we heard Tallis in a less extrovert vein. His 7-part Miserere is a remarkable work. He sets just three words of text yet these words are the framework around which Tallis spins an elaborate, unhurried structure of polyphony. It’s a short but glorious supplication and it was marvellously voiced in this performance. Finally we heard Byrd’s Tribue Domine which, like the preceding Tallis piece, was included in the Cantiones Sacrae of 1575. It’s an assured, ambitious and intricate composition and Byrd demonstrates not just a command of polyphony but also an imaginative ability to vary his choral textures, resting the altos or the basses at times, for example. For me this was arguably the most gripping performance of the evening. The singing was full of life and energy and yet everything was consistently clear and controlled. Byrd’s compositional virtuosity was matched by the virtuosity of the singing.

The concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3. One slight downside of this was that there was an announcer’s introduction before each piece and, frankly, these verbal programme notes were a distraction. However, it’s good that the concert could be heard by a wider audience and if you missed the concert it’s available to listen to here for the next few days.

Unsurprisingly this sell-out concert was the ‘hot ticket’ of the Festival. I doubt that anyone present was in any way disappointed, for Peter Phillips and his ten superb singers gave us what was, in effect, a masterclass in a cappella singing – and an enthralling experience. The glorious surroundings of Tewkesbury Abbey – surely one of the finest church buildings in England – added an aura, both visual and acoustic, to an unforgettable concert.

John Quinn