The Tallis Scholars: A Splendid End to the Canterbury Festival

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Taverner, White, Byrd, Sheppard, Tallis, The Tallis Scholars, Peter Philips (director), Canterbury Festival, Canterbury Cathedral, 2.11.2013 (BW)

John Taverner  Magnificat (a 6)
Robert White – Domine quis habitabit III
Robert White – Christe qui lux es III and IV
William Byrd – Magnificat from the Great Service
John Sheppard – Verbum caro
John Sheppard – Our Father
Thomas Tallis – Miserere
Thomas Tallis – Te Deum ‘for meanes’
Thomas Tallis – Gaude gloriosa


The Tallis Scholars are making a worldwide to mark their fortieth anniversary: their very first concert was given in Oxford on 3 November, 1973. Having heard every one of their recordings and been hard pressed each time to avoid repeating superlatives from previous reviews, I was delighted when the opportunity arose to hear them in concert in Canterbury Cathedral on the eve of the actual anniversary.

There were two fireworks parties outside in anticipation of Bonfire Night and to celebrate the end of the Festival, but The Scholars set off fireworks of a different kind and a vast audience in the Cathedral had a better deal than those at the other displays. I’ve reviewed everything that they have recorded on their own label, Gimell – I celebrated its 30th anniversary with a special review – but hearing them in the flesh in such a setting was an even more life-enhancing experience.  TS Eliot wrote Murder in the Cathedral for this venue but The Scholars would have roused even the ghost of Thomas a Becket.

It’s fitting that they chose three works by the composer whose name they bear and also music by Byrd, both of whom their recordings have served very well; but they have also done a great deal in the course of their forty years for the music of lesser-known Tudor composers.  Forty years ago David Wulstan and The Clerkes of Oxenford had the field almost to themselves; the Clerkes were responsible for Peter Phillips experiencing, in MagdalenCollege antechapel, a moment of inspiration of the kind that Wordsworth called ‘spots of time’ and James Joyce referred to as epiphanies.  The decision to found the Scholars came from there.

As it happens, two of the works from tonight’s Tallis Scholars’ concert are included on recordings that Wulstan and the Clerkes made in 1973 and 1974 and I reminded myself of them in advance: Tallis’s Gaude gloriosa and Sheppard’s Verbum caro.  The Tallis was recorded in the favourable acoustic of Merton College Chapel, Oxford, which has also become one of the Tallis Scholars’ favourite venues and where Peter Phillips is music director and Bodley fellow.

There’s nearly exact agreement between the recordings by The Clerkes (1974), The Scholars (1989 – now on 2-for-1 Gimell CDGIM210review) and The Sixteen (1988) regarding the right tempo for Verbum caro. The three recordings are within seconds of each other – not always a given for performances of music of this period.  Peter Phillips’ sense of the right pace for Tudor polyphony seems to have broadened over the years, as evidenced by his old and new Taverner recordings (see below), so I was interested to see if the consensus on this work still held.  I didn’t have a stopwatch with me, but it seemed pretty close.  More to the point, whereas I might, if driven to the wall, have chosen The Sixteen as my favourite exponents of this work, this Canterbury performance has left me hoping that The Scholars will record it again in the near future.

In one respect the Clerkes and other groups which use trebles – girls rather than boys in their case – on the top line come closer than the Scholars to the sound which Tallis’s and Sheppard’s contemporaries would have heard.  Forty years ago I would have adopted an academic attitude and ruled out mixed voices in this repertoire until I picked up a Classics for Pleasure recording of Allegri, Palestrina and Mundy by a group which I’d never heard of, The Tallis Scholars.  The Allegri Miserere and the Palestrina Missa Papæ Marcelli were the main selling points but it was William Mundy’s Vox patris cælestis, the work of a composer I’d barely heard of, which made the greatest impact on me.  The whole album established once and for all that performances of this music with female voices have real validity.

The Tallis Scholars didn’t quite introduce me to the music of John Taverner – that was courtesy of another Oxford group, the Schola Cantorum, on a very crackly Saga LP – but they consolidated my appreciation of it, so it’s appropriate that his 6-part Magnificat opened the Canterbury programme.  None of Taverner’s Magnificat settings featured on that earlier recording of the Missa Gloria tibi Trinitas, but they have just re-recorded that work together with three settings of the Magnificat (CDGIM045) and you’ll find highly appreciative reviews of the CD here and of the Studio Master download here.

Taverner appears to have ceased to compose at the time of the Reformation; he was one of a number of scholars suspected of Lutheran beliefs whom Cardinal Wolsey threw into the cellars of his Cardinal College, where one of his companions died from suffocation because of the noxious smell of stinking fish, but Taverner was released as of no account because he was ‘but a musician’.  He is credited with moving away from the florid writing of the previous generation to a plainer style but the 6-part Magnificat which opened the concert is the most elaborate of the three which The Scholars have recorded.  Excellent as their performance on the recording is, tonight’s had an extra degree of power.  Anyone in the audience who was new to polyphonic music must have thought that the heavens had opened.

The two pieces by Robert White which followed are of a more intimate nature: his third setting of Psalm 15, ‘Lord, who shall dwell’, and two settings of the Compline hymn Christe qui lux es; the reduced forces required for these made for a period of reflection before the Byrd.  The Scholars have recorded the two settings of the hymn (CDGIM210 again) and I hope that they will record the psalm, perhaps together with White’s other settings of it.

The first half of the concert ended as it began with a Magnificat, this time from Byrd’s Great Service.  Though himself a Roman Catholic recusant, Byrd set the nascent Anglican Church on a firm musical footing with this and other settings of Mattins, Communion and Evensong.  Miraculously, he contrived to obey Archbishop Cranmer’s injunction that the words must be paramount, set as far as possible one note per syllable, yet in a manner that demonstrated even more than Palestrina’s Missa Papæ Marcelli that it was possible to do so and yet retain the essence of polyphony.  All lovers of Byrd’s music should acquire The Scholars’ 2-for-1 set of his three Masses and Great Service (CDGIM208) but the experience in the flesh outshone even those CDs.  The arrangement of The Scholars into two five-part ‘choirs’ served as a visual reminder of the development of English Church music in that direction.  Thus the first part of this concert began and ended in high style.

Part two began with music by John Sheppard.  I had already got to know some of his music from that recording by The Clerkes but The Scholars furthered my appreciation with their recording of his setting of Media vita and other works, including the ninth respond from Christmas Matins, Verbum caro, which featured in the Canterbury concert (CDGIM210 again).  I’ve commented above on the live performance.

Sheppard seems to have died or retired around the beginning of Elizabeth I’s reign, but he did write music for the English Book of Common Prayer during the brief reign of Edward VI.  His setting of the Lord’s Prayer is one of these; though simpler than his Latin settings, it’s far from plain and by no means constrained by Cranmer’s injunction to make the words paramount.  The evidence of this Our Father suggests that Sheppard might have developed into a skilled composer of Anglican music.

Could The Scholars bring out the words clearly without dragging the tempo, as I’ve heard in some other performances?  I’m sorry to say that, though there could hardly be more familiar words, even The Scholars couldn’t get them to emerge from the music.  It’s not by any means my favourite piece of Tudor music and I think The Scholars were wise not to include it in their recording of Sheppard.

Any programme by The Tallis Scholars must include some music by the eponymous composer, especially so in Canterbury where he was briefly Vicar Choral.  Their Gimell 2-for-1 CD set of the music of Tallis (CDGIM203review) includes the Miserere and Gaude gloriosa, both of which were sung so very effectively in this concert, but not his English setting of the Te Deum ‘for meanes’, i.e. the middle voices.

I think of Tallis as not being quite at home in setting English texts by comparison with his younger contemporary, Byrd, but the quality of The Scholars’ performance in this concert made me seriously think again.  As the programme notes indicated, this text is not the easiest to set and many are the turgid outcomes – not least that by Tallis’s contemporary Merbecke which used to be ubiquitous.  Merbecke wrote some very fine music for the Latin rite, but his English settings are little more than modified plainsong whereas The Scholars’ performance made me rate the Tallis Te Deum as a small masterpiece.

As an encore we had a sample of Peter Phillips’ interest in Victoriana, a term which he uses with great elasticity, since William Harris’s setting of the words of John Donne, Bring us, O Lord God, dates from 1959.  This was a magical performance that made me regret that, apart from the recent Whitacre Sainte-Chappelle, specially commissioned by them (CDGIM802 – review: now also available as GBADM1380201 from Gimell), The Tallis Scholars nowadays don’t go beyond their sixteenth-century hunting ground, as once they did when they made forays into John Tavener.

Check their schedule and see if the Tallis Scholars are coming your way soon.  If they are, they won’t be repeating exactly the same programme but I guarantee that they will be well worth hearing.  Hearing them in Canterbury made a 50-mile drive to and from SE London on a very windy night seem like the proverbial piece of cake.

Brian Wilson.

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