Tuesday, 22 September 2015

The Tallis Scholars - 2000 concerts and counting!

© Eric Richmond

The Tallis Scholars
Peter Phillips (Director)

Taverner (c.1490-1545):    Leroy Kyrie
Sheppard (1515-1558):  Missa Cantate

Gabriel Jackson (b.1962):  Ave Dei patria filia
Byrd (c.1539-1623): Infelix ego
Ye Sacred Muses
Tribue Domine

Tallis (c.1505-1585):  Miserere nostri
Stanford (1852-1924):  The Blue Bird

St John's Smith Square, 21 September 2015


© Albert Roosenburg
2000 concerts in 42 years – an impressive statistic by any standard. The Tallis Scholars, now performing at a rate of roughly 100 concerts a year, with their founding director, Peter Phillips, chose to celebrate their 2000th concert in relatively low key style, compared with their gala 40th anniversary year concert at St Paul’s a couple of years ago. No expanded forces for Spem in Alium this time, but their more standard line-up of just 12 voices – a suitable way to celebrate such an achievement of such regular and consistent live performance, perhaps. However, three works from that concert appeared on tonight’s programme (although one as an encore), appropriately reflecting The Tallis Scholars’ repertoire with Renaissance polyphony combined with a contemporary choral work from Gabriel Jackson.

But the first half of their concert was dominated by a performance of the mammoth Missa Cantate by John Sheppard (1515-1558). Little is known about the detail of Sheppard’s life and music, which goes only some way to explaining why his wonderful music is not performed as often as Tallis or Byrd, say. One reason why the Missa Cantate in particular is not so often performed is the incredible stamina required to sustain a complete live performance. The Tallis Scholars wisely took short breathers between sections, yet even then, this is a pretty relentless challenge for just 12 voices, 2 to a part, with pretty much no let up.  Needless to say, The Tallis Scholars showed themselves more than up to this challenge however.

They preceded the mass with Taverner’s (c.1490-1545) Leroy Kyrie, so called as it is believed the tune may have been composed by King Henry IV or V. Immediately we heard The Tallis Scholars’ trademark smooth blend and bell-like high sopranos, setting the seen for the Missa Cantate to follow. In the opening Gloria, after the initial entries, Sheppard weaves the lower voices in and out in an almost hypnotic fashion, and the melismatic writing for tu solus (‘thou alone’) is exquisite, with more animation for cum Sancto Spiritu, and a glorious build to the Amen. Sheppard works his way through the Credo using the six voice parts in varied combinations, but also uses unexpected harmonic shifts (such as at ‘caelis’) to keep listeners and performers on their toes. Phillips and The Tallis Scholars managed the ebb and flow of the music within the overall arc of the whole mass with impressive ease, and the serenity of the Sanctus setting was contrasted well with the emphatic Hosannas, ending with a calming Agnus Dei, the lower voices particularly smooth and silky here. Having reached the end, Phillips and The Tallis Scholars deservedly enjoyed the sudden false relation and ‘blue’ notes Sheppard throws in towards the final cadence.

© Joel Garthwaite
The Tallis Scholars commissioned two works to celebrate their 40th anniversary, one from Eric Whitacre, and the other from Gabriel Jackson, and both were premièred at their anniversary concert at St Paul’s two years ago. Jackson’s Ave Dei patris filia opens with a joyful ‘Ave’, with all voices swooping in birdlike fashion. The use of repeated turns, particularly in the higher voices, is a striking feature throughout the work. There is limited use of overt dissonance, really only obvious in the Ave plena gracia section, and its economical use here is all the more effective for it, with bright soprano lines in a tight interplay. Jackson also frequently sets a melismatic soprano line against staccato rhythms in the other voices. These rhythms are particularly playful and bouncy in the penultimate Ave virgo feta section, which builds wonderfully to a return of the opening swooping for the final glorious praise and amen. It was great to hear this wonderful piece performed again, especially with the detail articulated in a slightly less challenging acoustic than St Paul’s.

The remainder of the programme focussed on Byrd, with two monumental votive antiphon motets that share a great deal in form and style, despite being composed some 15 or so years apart. The structure of both is comparable, with broadly similar shapes to their sections, and they share Byrd’s unusual choice of transposed Lydian mode. They ended with Tribue Domine, the earlier work, but first came Infelix ego.  The text for this is a contemplation on Psalm 50 by the Italian priest Savonarola, written shortly before his execution. Understandably full of anguish and penitence, it is ultimately a plea for mercy, and Byrd mixes hefty sections of homophonic writing against a variety of polyphonic writing for varied combinations of the 6 parts. Yet this is a subtle setting – after total despair and the question ‘Despair?’, the answer, ‘Absit’ (I shall not) turns the priest’s focus to seeking pity and mercy, and Byrd makes this distinction clear.  The opening section from The Tallis Scholars here could have perhaps had more anguish, but the increasingly insistent pleas for mercy had real intensity, before the music subsides back to a more subservient penitence for the final words.

Before Tribue Domine, came Ye Sacred Muses, Byrd’s heartfelt elegy to Tallis, following his death in 1585. The final words, ‘Tallis is dead, and music dies’ merit perhaps a little more emotion than on display here, but this was nonetheless a respectfully sensitive yet firm performance.

The Tallis Scholars then closed the programme with Tribue Domine. As with Infelix ego, Byrd makes much use of varied part writing, but also a variety of dynamic textures, with animated entries at the opening contrasting smoother overlapping falling lines at the end of the first section, for example. The Gloria section is substantial, and the build to the final Amen proved a fitting end to this well constructed programme. 

Not one but two encores followed – first the brief yet achingly exquisite Miserere nostri from Tallis, and then, slightly out of left-field, Stanford’s Victorian gem, The Blue Bird, with the two top sopranos beautifully blended on the solo line.

With no sign of their schedule letting up in any way, the concert tally will no doubt continue to rise indefinitely, but tonight’s concert will certainly stand out as a landmark on the way towards their next milestone.  Happy 2000th!

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