The a capella singers known as New York Polyphony offered more than Thomas Tallis’s well-known “Lamentations” at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin the other night in a concert presented by Miller Theatre as part of its Early Music series. The quartet-plus-two went beyond Tallis himself, and even leaped forward into the 21st century.
Tallis’s long career spanned much of the 16th century, under a fistful of English monarchs and regimes both Catholic and Protestant. Tenor Andrew Fuchs and bass-baritone Jonathan Woody joined the group’s regular four members to provide a succinct, enlightening survey of the composer’s groundbreaking work. The concert also offered a reminder of why the composer’s best-known works, such as the “Lamentations,” remain popular after more than four centuries.
A tiresome trend in today’s popular music is for the instrumental tracks to drop out and the lead singer to intone the song’s final line or phrase unaccompanied (and typically in a whiny tone). The first of three early Tallis devotional works on the program, “Audivi vocem de caelo” (“I heard a voice from heaven”), put me weirdly in mind of this when the solemn but joyous four-voice polyphony gave way to a single – though not remotely whiny – baritone voice in plainsong. Styles change radically as centuries pass, but many musical effects linger, retaining power over listening brains that haven’t fundamentally evolved. Alternation in liturgical/religious music between plainsong (one voice, or several voices in unison as in Gregorian chants) and polyphony (multipart harmony) is one such persistent trope. Countless modern recordings of songs have verses sung by a solo voice, and choruses in harmony.
The glorious four-part harmonies of the “Sancte Deus” filled the cavernous church. Then, for the third of the early works, the “Hodie nobis caelorum” (“Today for us the king of heaven is born”), the ensemble grew from four to six members. But they played a trick: To ghostly effect, countertenor Geoffrey Williams sang his solo plainsong passages from offstage.
The two sets of “Lamentations” themselves reveal the originality of Tallis’s art in full flower. He wrote them at a time when Catholic England smiled on rich, multipart harmonies and evocative picture-painting in sound. The ensemble rendered the music here with glowing brightness and fine balance. The No. II sequence soared especially high; you could really feel the sorrow and the towering drama of Israel’s suffering and her people’s exile.
By contrast, in the third of three simpler English-language songs from the Protestant era the singers brought out an almost modern melodic flow. That led, appropriately, into a piece by contemporary composer Andrew Smith, which reflected the spirit of Tallis and his times. Its note clusters felt like an evolution from traditional harmony rather than a rejection of it, while its Latin sections suggested the starkness of plainchant without actually being so.
I was particularly impressed by the performance of two of Tallis’s pieces from the “Cantiones Sacrae,” which felt intensely personal and meaningful. Following them, the first of two pieces from the same book by Tallis’s colleague and onetime student William Byrd showed especially clearly the ensemble’s ability to bring out individual voices while maintaining balance.
Visit New York Polyphony’s website for the group’s concert schedule, videos, and recordings. On CD, like any performers, they may be a little closer to absolute perfection. But in concert they make this ancient music truly live.