Friday, 31 May 2013

The Tallis Scholars - Tallis at 40: Gesualdo at 400

Following our BREMF Consort of Voices concert on Monday (see here), I was eager to hear The Tallis Scholars perform Gesualdo's Tenebrae Responses at Cadogan Hall this Wednesday 29 May, and I was not disappointed.

Gesualdo (1566-1613) is often thought of as being more radical as a composer than other contemporaries such as Palestrina, for example.  In our programme on Monday, we alternated some of Gesualdo's Responses with Palestrina's Lamentations, and the contrast couldn't be clearer, with Palestrina's smooth, almost ethereal lines and harmonies against Gesualdo's frequent key changes and sudden passages of rapid figuration.  However, Peter Phillips in his programme with The Tallis Scholars aimed to demonstrate that Gesualdo was by no means the most innovative composer of the time, in fact arguing that he was a relatively conservative composer.

They performed the nine Tenebrae Responses in one go, forming the first half of their programme.  For those unfamiliar with the works, they might have benefited from being broken up into smaller groupings, but The Tallis Scholars added some variety of texture by dropping from 12 voices to one to a part in many of the verse sections.  Gesualdo doesn't go in for a great deal of direct word-painting, so when he does it is all the more striking.  The contorted intervals and harmonies in the verse section of Recessit pastor noster, when the gates of hell are destroyed and the power of the devil is overturned, are a prime example.  Also the sudden explosion on the word liber (free) in Aestimatus sum descendentibus is a glorious moment, and The Tallis Scholars made this ring out beautifully.

Credit: Eric Richmond
The Tallis Scholars sound is generally very smooth and even, but Gesualdo's music dictates a greater degree of articulation, not least because of the sudden changes of rhythm and harmony, and Peter Phillips showed admirably his singers' ability to adapt to these requirements of the repertoire.  There was only one moment, at the start of Sepulto Domino, when I felt even The Tallis Scholars were slightly tentative - almost as if they were thinking, really, are you sure, Gesualdo?  I also found that here, and in fact throughout the programme, that one or two singers were consistently copy bound - understandable in such complex and unfamiliar repertoire, but I would have liked to have seen more engagement with their audience from time to time.

In the second half of the concert, they performed eight works all by different composers, to demonstrate the range of innovation, chromaticism and harmonic daring we perhaps don't often associate with music of this period.  Some composers were familiar (Orlande de Lassus (1532-1594), Giaches de Wert (1535-1596), Cipriano de Rore (1515-1565) and Monteverdi (1567-1643)) but some were certainly new to me (Jacobus Gallus (1550-1591) and Benedictus Appenzeller (1480-after 1558), for example).  There was also more variety in terms of settings here, ranging from the full 12 singers down to just four male voices in the incredibly arresting Calami sonum ferentes from de Rore.  This was actually the highlight of this second half for me - the opening canon basically weaving an upward chromatic scale between the four voices, creating amazing harmonic effects, and all credit must go to the pin-point accuracy of the four singers here.  This was followed by a five part motet by Hans Leo Hassler, Ad dominum cum tribularer.  In an inspired piece of programming, this continued the idea of a rising chromatic scale of the previous piece, again constructing a complex web, before chromatically falling at the end of the piece.  Other highlights included Mikołaj Zieleński's setting of Vox in rama, with its tortured chromatic suspensions at 'poratus et ululatus' (weeping and lamenting), and their final glorious performance of Monteverdi's Adoramus te, reassuring in its comparative simplicity and affirmative certainty, after all the preceding chromatic turmoil.  Peter Phillips explained how he had thought 'out of the box' in choosing their encore - Lay a Garland by Robert Pearsall (1795-1896), and this Victorian miniature would at first seem out of place.  However, somehow it gave the singers the perfect opportunity to relax into something warm and sumptuous, whilst also demonstrating the links to the harmonic innovations of Pearsall's forebears.  Overall, this was a thoroughly enjoyable programme, as ever expertly performed.

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