Tallis Scholars review: Enlightening and enthralling

Still going strong after 44 years, acclaimed English vocal ensemble lives up to its name and reputation

by TERRY ROSS

Since their inception 44 years ago, The Tallis Scholars have led the way in performing choral music of the Renaissance. Under founder and director Peter Phillips, the English ensemble has made almost a hundred recordings of the great composers of the 15th and 16th centuries, won every possible award for quality and generated a wagonload of ecstatic reviews. So let me join the crowd by acclaiming their most recent Portland concert on April 4 (their sixth, always in St. Mary’s Cathedral) as superbly sung, brilliantly interpreted, and carefully programmed.

Heard in person, their sound, always impeccable on recordings, takes on added luster and range of volume. It’s always a fresh thrill to hear these ten singers rise from a whisper to a fortissimo; it’s a big sound, made possible by fine voices but especially by the cohesion of the singers, who are absolutely in synch with one another and therefore project a united sonic product that twice or six times as many singers in a less “together” choir would not be able to muster.

The Tallis Scholars’ latest Portland appearance nearly sold out St. Mary’s Cathedral. Photo: Cappella Romana.

Over their decades, the Mr. Phillips and his Scholars have educated their public in their chosen field of music, otherwise intimately known only to organists and choristers in England and select parishes in America. In doing so they have created a small army of amateur musicologists familiar with a fair sampling of the big names in Renaissance choral music, including Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (c.1525-1594), whose music appears on at least a dozen of the Scholars’s recordings, and Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625), on half a dozen. In this Portland concert presented by Cappella Romana, Palestrina was represented by a Pater noster and Gibbons by a Magnificat and a Nunc dimittis.

Also present for the musicologists’ delectation were the less familiar: Hieronymus Praetorius, John Sheppard, Jacobus Gallus (also known as Jakob Handl), Jean Mouton, Johannes Eccard, and Andres de Torrentes. Not a few of the Scholars’s audience attend with learning as much on their minds as appreciating fine singing, and such ancillary figures are crucial. The nearly sold-out cathedral at St. Mary’s was full of local singers, conductors, music educators, and other aficionados.

In Metamorphosis, the Scholars repeated a program they had done a number of times in England. Built around four essential texts of Christianity — Magnificat, Pater noster (Our Father), Ave Maria, and Nunc dimittis — done variously in Latin, English, Russian Church Slavonic, and German, the concert featured eight selections in the first half (Magnificats and Pater nosters) and nine in the second (Ave Marias and Nunc dimittises). A special treat was the presence on the program of 20th-century composers Gustav Holst (1874-1934), Igor Stravinsky (1881-1971), Arvo Pärt (b. 1935), and John Tavener (1944-2013).

Palestrina’s Pater noster was, in a word, perfect, playing to all of The Tallis Scholars’s strengths. Gibbons’s relatively brief Magnificat was sung as a double choir (only five singers each!) in English, including antiphonal singing (choir against choir). His Nunc dimittis (a text in which Mary presents the infant Jesus in the temple), also in English, is more straightforwardly written, concluding in a beautiful Amen.

The two other Magnificats, by Praetorius (1560-1629) and Pärt, were contrasts: the Praetorius a double-choir extravaganza of choral techniques, and the Pärt, a favorite of choirs everywhere, an inexpressibly lovely and serene setting with soul-shattering crescendos. The Our Father of Sheppard (c.1515-1558) that followed Pärt’s Magnificat was more sweet than profound, but Tavener’s 1999 setting of the same text, likewise not contrapuntal, restored the mood of quiet contemplation. Stravinsky’s Otche nash (Our Father) from 1926 proved that this Russian had listened attentively to his compatriot Rachmaninov’s religious music. The Pater noster of Jakobus Gallus (1550-1591) ended the first half with an elaborate and stirring Amen.

The second half began with a Gregorian chant Ave Maria and then three other settings of this familiar text, one in Latin and two in Russian Church Slavonic. The first, which used just eight singers (The Tallis Scholars minus two of their four sopranos) was by Jean Mouton (c.1459-1522), the oldest composer on the program. Based on a text that adds the words “Virgo serena” (serene Virgin) and many more to the traditional prayer, it unfolded in suave five-part polyphony, leading to a simpler and therefore very effective triple address to the Virgin at the end. Then, restored to ten singers, the Scholars sang Stravinsky’s brief Bogoroditse Devo (Ave Maria), not at all reminiscent of Rachmaninov and very short and homophonic (all voices singing chords together), which in turn gave way to Pärt’s cool, minimalist, and similarly homophonic setting.

The focus then turned to five settings of the Nunc dimittis, in which the devout Jew Simeon, who has been promised by God that he will see the Messiah before he dies, holds the baby Jesus in his arms and says “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word. For mine eyes have seen my salvation.” With the Magnificat (“My soul doth magnify the Lord”), this text underpins the structure of the Anglican Evensong service and appears prominently in most other Christian liturgies.

After the first Nunc, by Gibbons in English, described above, came a comparative rarity, a Lutheran setting by the German composer Johannes Eccard (1553-1611), who was considered a master of polyphony but whose Nunc is a moving and strictly homophonic setting. Arvo Pärt’s third piece followed, a very uncharacteristic one for this composer in its imitative part writing and ebullience. Nunc dimittises by the Spaniard Andres de Torrentes (c.1510-1580) and the Englishman Holst ended the program, the former with some spirited counterpoint and Holst’s in a double-choir treatment with a lively Amen.

For an encore, the Scholars sang a lovely Cantate Domino by Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) in yet another music style (early baroque), further cementing the Tallis Scholars’s reputation as masters of choral singing of all ages, and for all choral music fans. Even for this audience member, admittedly a sort of early music nerd, the pieces by Meister Eccard and Torrentes were small revelations, and Pärt’s Nunc dimittis revealed a side of this composer that I hadn’t known existed. Among the audience, neither the lovers of gorgeous singing nor the amateur musicologists could have had anything to complain about.

Recommended recordings

• Praetorius, Magnificat IV
Hieronymus Praetorius Magnificats & motets, The Cardinal’s Music, Andrew Carwood conducting (Hyperion CDA67669), 2008.

• Gibbons, Magnificat & Nunc dimittis
Gibbons Church Music, Choir of King’s College Cambridge, David Willcocks conducting (Decca 4758184), 2006.

• Pärt Magnificat
Pärt: Tintinabuli, The Tallis Scholars (Gimell CDGIM049), 2015.

• Pärt, Bogoroditse Devo
Arvo Pärt I Am the True Vine, Theatre of Voices & Poro Arte Singers, Paul Hillier conducting (Harmonia Mundi HMU907242), 1999.

Pärt, Nunc dimittis
Arvo Pärt: Da pacem Domine, Latvian Radio Choir, Sigvrds Klava conducting (Ondine ODE12862), 2016.

• Sheppard, Our Father
John Sheppard — Media vita, Stile Antico (Harmonia Mundi HMU807509), 2010.

• Tavener, Our Father
The Evening Hour: British Choral Music from the 16th and 20th Centuries, Jesus College Choir Cambridge, Mark Williams conducting (Signum SIGCD446), 2016.

• Stravinsky, Otche nash, Bogoroditse Devo
The Warbler Sings (North Pacific Music NNP PS 2016), 2016.

• Palestrina, Pater noster
Palestrina: Masses & Motets, Choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, Stephen Darlington conducting (Nimbus NI5650), 2001.

• Gallus, Pater noster
Pater Noster: Sacred Choral Music of Five Centuries, Salzburg Bach Choir, Alois Glassner conducting (Oehms OC1817), 2015.

• Mouton, Ave Maria virgo serena
Jean Mouton, The Tallis Scholars (Gimell CDGIM047), 2012.

• Eccard, Maria wallt zum Heiligtum
The Christmas Story, Theatre of Voices and Ars Nova Copenhagen, Paul Hillier conducting (Harmonia Mundi HMU807565), 2011.

Torrentes, Nunc dimittis
No recordings available.

• Holst, Nunc dimittis
Panis Angelicus: Favourite Motets from Westminster Cathedral, Westminster Cathedral Choir, James O’Donnell conducting (Hyperion CDA66669), 1993.

Monteverdi, Cantate Domino
Early Choral Music at Trinity College, Cambridge, Richard Marlow conducting (Sony Classical Masters, 88985323472), 2016.

Terry Ross is a Portland freelance journalist and the director of The Classical Club, through which he offers classical music appreciation sessions. He can be reached at classicalclub@comcast.net.

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