Tallis Scholars, Reflecting Religion’s Infinite Stillness

 United StatesUnited States Taverner, Tallis, Muhly, Pärt: Tallis Scholars, Peter Philips (director), Alice Tully Hall, New York City. 16.11.2013 (DS)

Taverner: Kyrie “Leroy”
Taverner: Gloria, from Missa “Gloria tibi Trinitas”
Tallis: Audivi vocem (before 1559)
Taverner: Credo, from Missa “Gloria tibi Trinitas”
Taverner: Sanctus, from Missa “Gloria tibi Trinitas”
Nico Muhly: Recordare, Domine (2013, New York premiere)
Arvo Pärt: …which was the son of… (2000)
Taverner: Agnus Dei, from Missa “Gloria tibi Trinitas”

If you weren’t religious before, you might well be after hearing the Tallis Scholars perform at Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival. Wafting over the Alice Tully audience, the pure streaming counterpoint layered by this handful of unaccompanied singers was so thoughtfully and virtuosically blended that one could coast along, never dropped by the lines of sacred music.

The sopranos’ straight, vibrato-free singing grasped the ear and pulled people (or their souls) up into unknown ethers. At other times, eloquently woven duets suspended the contrasting timbres of bass and soprano in perfect balance. When heard together, all four parts (soprano, alto, tenor, and bass) have the extraordinary ability to feign a sense of stillness while always gliding forward. Generally there are no melodies, dictating our emotions and manipulating our inevitable pathway to a cadence. Instead, the music reflects religion’s infinite stillness—meant to last forever yet also of the moment.

Between performances of Thomas Tallis’ Audivi vocem and selections from John Taverner’s Missa “Gloria tibi Trinitas,” the ensemble performed two contemporary works with a Tudor influence, including Arvo Pärt’s, …which was the son of… This light humorous piece (perhaps unusual for this composer) is set to the unlikely text of Bible lineage, starting with Jesus and going all the way back to Adam (from Luke 3:23-38). Thanks to surtitles, it slowly sunk in that this piece was tinged with a taste of irony—especially poignant as the Messiah sing-along season approaches.

The other contemporary offering was Nico Muhly’s Recordare, Domine, complementing his recent Metropolitan Opera debut of Two Boys, and an engrossing work with text from the lamentations of the prophet Jeremiah. Muhly’s use of punctuated sounds and short broken phrases stood out against the Tudor-inspired music. Certainly there were the expected 21st-century dissonances, but Muhly surprised listeners with an extensively held tritone chord, which the Tallis Scholars evoked like a wooden bar stretched beneath several phrases. It was both repulsive and arousing, as a tritone should be.

A short, unplanned encore in memory of the composer John Tavener, who had sadly passed away just a few days earlier, was an exquisite setting of the Lord’s Prayer which the ensemble had commissioned from him in 1999. It was a fitting end to this stirring program.

The concert had no intermission, holding the audience in a transfixed mood for an hour and 15 minutes. As beautiful as the Tudor period works are, they can be piercingly intense—sometimes even a little painful—when heard in a space for which they were not originally created. Alice Tully offers no stone columns or expansive cathedral nave to dissipate the sound or create rougher reverberation textures. As D.H. Lawrence wrote, “The magnificent throb of beauty is incomprehensible and even a little despicable.” But, then, that seeming contradiction is why listeners keep coming back for more.

Daniele Sahr

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