The Tallis Scholars on Top Form in their 2000th Concert

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Taverner, Sheppard, Jackson, Byrd: The Tallis Scholars, Peter Phillips (director), St John’s, Smith Square, London, 21.9.2015 (BW)

The Tallis Scholars (c) Eric Richmond

John TavernerLeroy Kyrie
John SheppardMissa Cantate
Gabriel JacksonAve Dei Patris Filia
William ByrdInfelix ego
William Byrd – Ye sacred muses
William ByrdTribue Domine

Almost two years ago I had the privilege of hearing the Tallis Scholars in the concluding concert of the Canterbury Festival, 2013 – review.  Now I’m even more privileged to be reviewing their 2000th concert at St John’s, Smith Square.

It was a double celebration, also marking an ideal start to the 2015 London A Cappella Choir competition, so I was surprised to see a decent audience but that St John’s was not packed to the rafters.  Perhaps potential attendees had opted to stay home on a wet evening and listen to the broadcast on Radio 3.  I’m sure they enjoyed it, though perhaps not as much as those who were there evidently did.  UK readers will still be able to listen on the web for a time and I recommend doing so.

The main work in the first half was John Sheppard’s Missa Cantate.  It’s clearly a festal setting but so little is known about Sheppard – and what we once thought we knew is not wholly true – that neither the actual feast for which it was composed nor the Cantate theme which provides the cantus firmus has been identified.  We cannot even be sure when Sheppard died – apparently in December 1588, but he is recorded as having been present at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth a month later.  Perhaps a Tudor example of someone fiddling expenses?

Whatever the details, there’s a good case for thinking this 6-part Mass, probably composed during the brief restoration of the Latin rite in the reign of Queen Mary,  at least the equal of the better-known Western Wind Mass which the Tallis Scholars recorded some time ago. (That recording is available in several couplings on their own Gimell label but best obtained on a 2-for-1 set, CDGIM210: Bargain of the Month – review.)  On the basis of their performance at St John’s I very much hope that they will be recording the Cantate Mass, too, in the near future.  As Peter Phillips has written, ‘[it’s] one of the most exciting – and least performed – of all the big Tudor Mass settings. The very title – Cantate: Sing! – gives the clue’.

Sing they did, and they outshone even my two benchmark recordings – by Peter Phillips’ former mentor David Wulstan and the Clerkes of Oxenford and The Sixteen directed by Harry Christophers.  I suspect that the Wulstan recording was the point of departure for both Peter Phillips and Harry Christophers and it’s still very valuable but I think it was more even than the sense of occasion at St John’s that made me prefer the Tallis Scholars.

Listening to The Sixteen in this Mass as I write I notice that, beautifully as they sing, they don’t seem to move the music along quite as much as do The Tallis Scholars – Harry Christophers tended then to adopt a more reflective stance, especially in the Agnus Dei, but nowadays it’s usually the other way round and I suspect that a remake would find him more in line with Peter Phillips, who seemed to strike the right balance in this performance between brilliance and reflection.

Sheppard would never have imagined the kind of concert performance, with mixed voices, that we were given – and he certainly would never have expected applause, which even spontaneously burst out after each section of the Mass.  In one of his trademark reconstructions, Paul McCreesh recorded the work with the propers of the third Mass of Christmas. Valuable as that is, in this case I found the inclusion of the plainsong a distraction from the beauty of Sheppard’s music, which was fully brought out this evening by the Tallis Scholars. I was glad that the interval followed immediately after the Sheppard Mass;  anything else would surely have been an anti-climax after the intense performance which the Scholars gave us.  Even the exit to the bar or to have a breath of air outside at the interval seemed like the breaking of a spell.

English composers of the time did not set the Kyrie, which in the Sarum Rite was usually extended with lengthy additions appropriate to the season, known as ‘troping’, and sung in plainchant.  There is, however, a ‘spare’ setting of the Kyrie by John Taverner, known as Kyrie Leroy, and this preceded the Sheppard Mass. The Leroy of the title remains a mystery – there have been suggestions that Henry VIII had a hand in its composition or that it was composed for him, or that it was based on an earlier composition by Henry IV or Henry V – but the most likely explanation is that given in the notes to the Tallis Scholars’ recording, that Taverner chose to base it on the extra-liturgical ‘square’ setting for Lady Mass on Sunday, traditionally known as ‘leroy’.  It’s a short setting – less than four minutes – but it made an excellent introduction to the concert as a whole and to the Sheppard Mass.

For a long time the Tallis Scholars, like Jane Austen, stuck largely to a specialist repertoire, but I was pleased to see the reissue of their recording of John Tavener’s Ikon of Light (review) and their recent CD of music for Arvo Pärt’s 80th birthday (review).  They have also commissioned some contemporary music, such as Eric Whitacre’s Sainte Chapelle which was written in 2013 for the group’s 40th anniversary (review).

The second half of this St John’s concert opened with another such 40th anniversary commission, Gabriel Jackson’s Ave Dei Patris Filia, which uses a Marian text also set by Thomas Tallis. As Peter Phillips writes, ‘This again is a shout of praise.’  Its renaissance antecedents are clear, even down to the five-part scoring, with trebles, means, altos, tenors and basses, but it’s far from merely imitative and I hope that the Tallis Scholars, who clearly greatly enjoyed performing it, will record this, too.  There are elements in the music that hark back even further than the sixteenth century to the earlier polyphonic style of Josquin.

The Tallis Scholars have performed and recorded almost as much of the music of William Byrd as of their eponymous composer (start with The Tallis Scholars sing William Byrd, 2-for-1 CDGIM208) and they rounded off the evening with three works by him.  As a recusant Catholic in Elizabethan England he could hardly have been the chirpiest of birds.  Though his position as composer for the Chapel Royal offered him a degree of immunity, he knew that such was not extended to his fellow religionists: he expostulated in a piece entitled Why do I use my paper, inke and penne and he kept up a semi-cryptic series of compositions on the theme of oppression with continental composers.

The Tallis Scholars have recorded both sides of Byrd’s compositional face (Playing Elizabeth’s Tune, GIMSA592, CD, or GIMDP901, PAL DVD, or GIMNP902, NTSC DVD).  All three works which concluded the programme tonight are of a serious nature.  The first, Infelix ego, is based on the meditations of the failed reformer Savonarola as he awaited execution, a moving setting in which Byrd also brings out the consolation of the words ‘Quid igitur faciam?  Desperado?  Absit’.  (What, then shall I do?  Despair? Away with that idea.)  Once again the Tallis Scholars brought out both aspects of the music.

Byrd had co-operated with his older contemporary, Thomas Tallis in preserving music for the old rite – openly published in the Cantiones Sacræ – and adapting polyphony to the new.  His grief at the death of Tallis is apparent in his intimate setting of Ye sacred muses.  It’s almost madrigal-like in its form and ideally best suited for a smaller setting such as the Wigmore Hall or Purcell Room, or for home listening, so it’s greatly to their credit that Peter Phillips and his singers gave us such an intimate performance in such a large venue.

The concert proper ended with Tribue Domine, the piece by Byrd which the Tallis Scholars have performed most often over the years.  They chose it for their Silver Anniversary Concert (Live in Oxford, CDGIM998) and it formed a suitable conclusion to the main programme, especially as it ends with a burst of glory in the final extended doxology.  Perhaps the Merton College acoustic has a slight edge over St John’s but the performance was every bit as good as its predecessor.  They could probably sing it in their sleep by now but there was no sense that the performance had become routine.

Of the two short encores, Stanford’s The Blue Bird, indulging Peter Phillips’ love of Victoriana, was worth the price of the concert on its own and made me wish again that The Tallis Scholars would find time in their busy schedule to give us an album of such little gems.  I’m interested to note that they have added Schütz and John Rutter to their repertoire for their concert at the Cadogan Hall on 22 October.

The Tallis Scholars are returning to St John’s on Saturday 19 December, as part of the pre-Christmas programme: more Sheppard, Tallis, of course, and Arvo Pärt as part of their year-long celebration of his 80th birthday.  If you can’t get there, or to one of their concerts nearer to you – schedule – you can always catch up with them on their recent budget-price 2-CD compilation Perfect Polyphony (CDGIM213review) and on the forthcoming CD of Taverner’s Missa Corona Spinea and other music (CDGIM046) scheduled for release at the end of October 2015, which you may have seen advertised and which I intend to review for MusicWeb International shortly before that date.

Brian Wilson

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