Beautiful, uplifting concert with Hymns to the Virgin from the Tallis Scholars

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Various, Hymns to the Virgin: Tallis Scholars / Peter Phillips (conductor). St John’s Smith Square, London, 21.12.2021. (CC)

Peter Phillips conducts the Tallis Scholars (c) Rodrigo Perez,

de LassusAlma redemptoris mater
Josquin des PrezMissa Ave maris stella
GuerreroMaria Magdalene et altera Maria; Ave virgo sanctissima
Matthew Martin – Sanctissima
StravinskyBogoroditse dev
IsaacVirgo prudentissima

Performed on the Winter Solstice (21 December) and celebrating the Divine Feminine, one could almost claim this concert celebrated the paganist side of Christianity. Ladies get pretty short shrift in Christian writings (although Orthodox religions seem to put greater emphasis on the Mother of God), so all credit to Peter Phillips and the Tallis Scholars for opting for a programme around ‘the Marys’ (Mary the Virgin and Mary Magdalene).

The singing on this particular occasion was as carefully considered and balanced as the programme itself. There are four prayers appointed for evening offices in the Catholic monastic tradition, all of which were set by Orlando de Lassus repeatedly. His eight-part Alma redemptoris mater (Glorious mother of the Redeemer) is essentially tripartite (‘Alma redemptoris mater’; ‘Tu quae genuisti’; ‘Virgo prius ac posterius’). The layout of the singers varied throughout the evening, beginning here with the ladies in the centre of the line, offering a beautifully rich sound. The tuning of the Tallis Scholars is miraculous, as is their ensemble (well-nigh faultless throughout the entire evening).

Back a little earlier in time then to Josquin des Prez’s Missa Ave maris stella, a piece recorded by the Tallis Scholars for Gimell (coupled there with the Missa De beata virgine). We should note also that this year marks the 500th anniversary of Josquin’s death. Sopranos now on the left end of the line of singers, this balm for the soul. The performance unfolded ever naturally; interesting to hear how in this mass Josquin’s textures are often daringly spare. We heard relevant plainchant preceding the movements, as is accepted practice, but it was the purity of both voice and expression that impressed most: the sopranos in the ‘Qui tollis’ of the Gloria a real case in point, or indeed the soprano/tenor canon that opens the Credo. When it came to the Sanctus, those open textures exuded fragility – and a very human vulnerability that is not quite so present in the group’s recording of this piece. We hear a similar Affekt in the opening of the Benedictus, which there leads to the most remarkable, glorious harmonic flowering at the Hosanna.

The post-interval music took us up to the present time before wrenching us further back in the most remarkable fashion. By hearing the music of Heinrich Isaac (c.1450-1517) after pieces by Matthew Martin (born 1976), Stravinsky (died 1971) and Pärt (still with us), one could hear the truly miraculous invention of Heinrich Isaac. First, though that music by Francisco Guerrero (1528-1599), firstly his Maria Magdalena et altera Maria (Mary Magdalene and the other Mary). The Tallis Scholars recorded this, too, coupling it with Alonso Lobo’s Missa Maria Magdalene (and other works by Lobo). Richer textured than the Josquin (and performed with a slightly warmer sound), the beautifully florid setting of ‘Alleluia’ was a highlight.

It was Guerrero who formed a link to the present day: the Tallis Scholars presented two settings of the text ‘Ave virgo sanctissima,’ the second by Martin. Guerrero’s piece is a masterpiece (and one of his better-known works), referencing the beginning of the ‘Salve regina’ antiphon at the word ‘Salve’. The Guerrero is a festival of descending lines (these almost a musical pietà). Martin, Precentor and Director of College Music at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, offers a dark, profound response to the text that itself leads us towards Stravinsky. Martin’s juxtapositions of dissonance and consonance (in that order: consonance is heard in the context of dissonance, not the other way around) is beautiful, and all credit to the Tallis Scholars for their spectacularly accurate tuning.

Stravinsky’s Bogoroditse devo (1934, Paris) is brief but speaks truly from the heart. It is a song of rejoicing (‘Rejoice, O Virgin Theotokos’). It is also one of Stravinsky’s lesser-known pieces – why that is seems unanswerable. There was a sense of the collective speaking as one in the homophonic setting of the text which speaks with an equivalent sense of heartfelt devotion as Arvo Pärt did in the next piece, Pärt’s text adapted from the traditional prayers to the Mother of God, is typically hypnotic, and the Tallis Scholars have the piece all the breadth it needs. Silences must speak and speak they did; as must the anguished harmonies. Again, hearing them perfectly in tune added to their power.

Isaac was held in great esteem in his day: he was in the employ of the man who at the time of composition was soon to be Holy Roman Emperor. In the text of Virgo prudentissima (The most wise Virgin), the Virgin Mary is Maximilian’s advocate (‘pro Caesare Maximiliano’ in the piece’s text). The music is astonishing in its construction. Chordal ejaculations have all the power of Stravinsky at his most potent (and offer a near-equivalent dissonance at times). Slow chant alternated with the most complex counterpoint; the very opening sounded like a bell carillon. Some of the sparer textures brought with them a satisfying mirroring of the first works on the evening’s programme. The text itself is incredibly potent on its own; Isaac offers a commensurate response that lives on long after the final note has gone. Despite the complexities of Issac’s wiring, it was the sense of freedom within constraint that this performance projected most strongly, the singers offering a slightly rawer edge as is appropriate to the repertoire.

A beautiful, uplifting concert, rounded off by a small but highly effective encore: Pärt’s Bogoroditse devo, dancing like a frisky Christmas carol and containing the most remarkable rapid-fire chanting. Magnificent.

Colin Clarke

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