The Tallis Scholars, one of the world’s premier early music ensembles, comes as near to a capella choral perfection as you’re likely to hear in concert. As it turns out, that holds true even when one singer has lost his voice and director Peter Phillips and the 10-member group have had to change their program at the last minute.
That’s what happened as the Scholars prepared for their concert last Saturday night at Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Times Square, part of the Miller Theater at Columbia University‘s Early Music series. The first half of the program was to consist of music for double choir by Josquin des Prez and Cipriano de Rore, but with half the two-man bass section absent, the group had to substitute music that doesn’t include two separate parts for each voice.
Palestrina’s Missa Assumpta est Maria did nicely – and was more than nicely done. The extraordinarily clear and rich acoustics of the cavernous church allowed for good balance among the six parts, the single bass part sung on this occasion by just one singer but nevertheless easily heard. Through the piece’s several sections there is continual movement, textural as well as harmonic, and the singers brought out the celestial, the smoky, and the full-spectrum with equal finesse and precision. If they were out of practice or otherwise not fully prepared to perform this great work, I certainly couldn’t tell.
Two settings of the “Salve Regina,” both sung exquisitely, made a nice contrast during the concert’s second half. The motet by Claudin de Sermisy is relatively gentle and undramatic, restful, voices moving often in parallel, as if the composer felt the way to entreat the Virgin Mary was to speak softly. The second setting, from a Guatemalan manuscript of works by the 16th-century Spanish-born composer Hernando Franco, has a darker, more dramatic, more pleading tone. Its music is more illustrative of the words, as when the “Et Jesum” passage begins with tenor plainchant and the other voices enter with subtle beauty reflecting Mary’s revealing the newborn Jesus to onlookers. No choir is more adept than the Tallis Scholars at delicate passages like this, where individual singers’ voices are exposed.
Internal contrasts characterized the great Spanish composer Tomás Luis de Victoria’s “Magnificat Primi Toni,” with close harmonies in the female voices and a striking fanfare. Though Flemish composer Cipriano de Rore’s work was excised from the first half, he was well represented in the second by the madrigal-like “Hodie Christus natus est.” And the evening closed with English composer John Taverner’s “O splendor gloriae,” with the soprano section steady as steel in the beautiful layered harmonies and the whole ensemble shining in the fugue-like section at the end.
Performed by one of the western world’s finest choral groups, these works consituted a sublime survey of Christmas-related music by Renaissance composers, some, like Palestrina and Taverner, very well known, others less so. We are lucky all of them reside in the large repertoire of the wondrous and resourceful Tallis Scholars.