The Tallis Scholars’ Compelling Combination of Polyphony and Pärt

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Tallis, Taverner, Mouton, Pärt, Sheppard, Allegri, The Tallis Scholars/Peter Phillips, Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 4.6. 2015 (JQ)

Tallis –  Loquebantur variis linguis
Taverner – Leroy Kyrie
Mouton – Nesciens mater
Pärt – The Woman with the Alabaster Box
Tribute to Caesar
Tallis – Sanctus Deus
Sheppard – Libera nos, salva nos I and II
Allegri – Miserere
Tallis – Miserere
Pärt – Triodion
Which was the Son of…


Until I read Peter Phillips’ book about The Tallis Scholars, What We Really Do (review) I had assumed that the ideal place for a concert of Renaissance polyphony would be a nicely resonant church; after all, the music was often first heard in such places. However, in the book Phillips expresses a preference for modern concert halls with good, clear acoustics, such as Symphony Hall; the resonance of an ecclesiastical building can blunt the clarity which he always seeks to attain in performance. Of course, the ensemble habitually records in churches – mostly in Merton College Chapel, Oxford, though quite a number of recordings were set down in the parish church at Salle, Norfolk. However, when recording a skilled engineer came tame the resonance of the building, allowing just enough to give a pleasing ambience round the voices without making the sound of the singers too diffuse. As it happens, my previous experience of hearing The Tallis Scholars singing live had been in churches – Tewkesbury Abbey and the slightly smaller acoustic of St. James’ Church, Chipping Campden – so I was very keen to hear them in Symphony Hall’s famously clear acoustic space.

Though principally associated with Renaissance polyphony, the group has performed a highly selective amount of contemporary music. One of the composers to whose music Peter Phillips is especially drawn is Arvo Pärt, who celebrates his eightieth birthday this year. The Tallis Scholars have already paid an impressive tribute to the Estonian composer with a widely acclaimed CD devoted to his music (review). In addition, they are singing his music a lot in concert this year. All four of the Pärt pieces that we heard this evening are on the CD, which was released earlier this year.

It was a strange sensation to settle down in Symphony Hall and see the stage empty save for eight music stands ranged in a semi-circle facing the conductor’s stand. Even when the full ensemble of sixteen singers had taken their places the stage still seemed very bare.

Tallis’s Pentecost antiphon, Loquebantur variis linguis was a shrewd choice with which to open the programme. Alexandra Coghlan’s excellent programme note referred to the “chattering complexity” of the piece, which she described as “a joyous musical Babel”. How effectively Tallis illustrates the excited “chattering” of the Disciples after receiving the gift of tongues. The polyphonic music was delivered by fourteen singers at the front of the stage while two tenors, positioned right at the back of the stage on the risers, sang the plainchant passages. Immediately I was struck by the clarity and immediacy of the sound in this acoustic.

After a wonderfully controlled account of Taverner’s ‘Leroy’ Kyrie in which the long lines unfolded serenely, Peter Phillips took us across the Channel for a piece by Jean Mouton. His wonderful eight-part Christmas piece, Nesciens mater, is probably his best-known piece, and deservedly so. The music is rapt and contemplative but also contains dignified fervour. This evening’s wonderfully sculpted performance came across marvellously in the hall’s clear, accurate acoustic.

Pärt’s The Woman with the Alabaster Box and Tribute to Caesar were written as a pair of pieces in 1997 so it was good to hear them together. In these two pieces the singing was expertly calibrated. Furthermore, the diction was excellent so that one had no need to follow the texts in the programme; that was true of all the Pärt pieces. The subdued ending of The Woman with the Alabaster Box, depicting the chastened Pharisees departing, was most effective in this performance. Pärt’s music is spare of texture, placing great demands on the performers if they’re to turn in performances of the standard we heard tonight.

Returning to Tudor Polyphony, we heard pieces by Tallis and by John Sheppard. It was shrewd to juxtapose the quite slender Sanctus Deus with the two Sheppard pieces, which are much more rich of texture. I especially admired Libera nos, salva nos I which spans a tremendous range from the firm bass lines up to the flamboyant, soaring soprano parts. The Tallis Scholars’ sopranos were fantastic here, their pure, clear tone soaring above the ensemble.

In What We Really Do Peter Phillips relates that, in response to popular demand, the group has performed Allegri’s Miserere more than any other piece of music. Between 1979 and the end of 2012 they had sung it 370 times and I daresay there have been a few more performances since. How on earth do you keep a piece fresh after so many outings, especially when the piece is, frankly, somewhat repetitious? Well, part of the answer seems to lie in imaginative – but definitely not gimmicky – presentation. Here Phillips made excellent use of the spatial opportunities offered by the venue, His main consort of five singers (SSATB)was placed at the front of the stage, right in front of him. The SATB semi-chorus was positioned high above the platform, right in front of the organ console. That much I had half-expected. What came as a very pleasant surprise was that the chant passages were sung by three off-stage tenors. These singers were high up somewhere in the backstage area – on the same level as the semi-chorus – and we heard their singing in the distance, wafting through the partially opened acoustic doors at the right-hand side of the stage, as if from a distant cloister. It was a most effective and thoughtful presentation of this over-familiar piece.

The full ensemble returned to the front of the stage for Tallis’s Miserere. This is infinitely more compact than Allegri’s piece, setting just one line of Psalm 51 in a tone of gentle supplication. It’s a brief but eloquent piece, given a beautifully poised performance here.

Pärt’s Triodion is a fascinating piece, heavily indebted to Orthodox liturgical music, which is refracted through the composer’s own style. Alexandra Coghlan memorably commented that in the piece “we can clearly hear the contemporary ghost-double of Faburden chant, transformed here in collision with Pärt’s own Orthodox faith and spare soundworld.”  I don’t doubt for a minute that the element of Faburden chant is present though so far in listening to the piece I’ve found the Orthodox influence is much more evident. Perhaps it’s that influence that accounts for the greater richness of choral texture that we hear in this piece compared to many of the composer’s vocal pieces.  Each of the three Odes, which are sung without a break, ends with a short plea for mercy. In these passages Pärt’s writing is particularly masterly. He manages to invest the music most effectively with an air of hesitancy and humility. That’s especially evident at the end of the first Ode where marginally different note values in the various parts give an impression of what I can only call “stammering”. Triodion is a most affecting and prayerful composition and it here received a magnificent performance.

Which was the Son of… sets a most unlikely text, which could be described as, essentially, a list of names. It’s the passage in St Luke’s Gospel that sets out the reverse genealogical tree, linking Christ through the Old Testament lineage right back to “Adam, which was the son of God.” From what might appear to be this unpromising material Pärt has fashioned a most inventive piece which is full of interest and variety. I’ve heard it several times before on CD but seeing it performed accentuates the extent to which Pårt tosses the musical invention around from one vocal part to another. This highly original piece is not only clever but also, when done with sophistication and expertise as here, it’s very entertaining. This was a super performance.

We were given an encore which was completely different to anything previously heard. The Tallis Scholars sang Sir William Harris’s double-choir anthem, Bring us, O Lord God for no other reason, Peter Phillips admitted, than that he thinks it’s a great piece. I couldn’t agree more. It’s one of the glories of the Anglican repertoire and here it received a fabulous performance. The depth and richness of Harris’s sumptuous textures were wonderfully realised in a performance of tremendous precision. I’m not ashamed to admit that my eyes prickled when the singers delivered the final, radiant ‘Amen’. A performance of this stature confirms the anthem as a classic of the genre. It was the perfect conclusion to a memorable concert.

John Quinn     

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