Tallis Scholars’ Telltale Sounds

Joseph Sargent on December 7, 2009
Amid an ever-expanding roster of outstanding Renaissance ensembles, the Tallis Scholars remains a force to be reckoned with. For several decades now, Director Peter Phillips and his singers have been leaders on the early-music scene through internationally renowned tours and recordings, as well as by cultivating a distinctively bright sound, anchored by laser-sharp sopranos and rich, voluminous basses. At its best, this sound conveys remarkable purity and crispness, with an icy edge.
The Tallis Scholars

In Friday’s performance at First Congregational Church in Berkeley, a program headlined by Josquin des Prez’ Missa de Beata Virgine, the ensemble wasn’t always at its best. Occasional flubbed entrances marred the group’s customary precision, and a homogeneity of approach sometimes dulled the contrasts within individual pieces or movements. Nevertheless, the singers’ unassailable skill and sterling vocal quality, put to outstanding use in a program spanning an admirable breadth of genres, made for an evening filled with rich rewards.

Josquin’s Blessed Virgin Mass, dating from late in his career, draws on chants from the traditional “Lady Mass” and attenuates the composer’s penchant for dazzling technique in favor of a smoother, more austere profile. The ensemble’s crystalline purity allowed for impeccable declamation of melodies in the Kyrie, the singers clearly projecting the movement’s meandering contrapuntal threads. Movements with more-vivid contrasts presented some curious divergences in approach. The Gloria’s tempo shifts, for instance, were glossed over without much ceremony or character change. Yet other sections, such as the Credo and Agnus Dei, showed far more nuance, with the singers taking greater advantage of dynamics and tempo to bring out subtleties in Josquin’s music.

A Magnificat by the little-known 15-century English composer John Nesbett introduced a diverse collection of genres on the program’s second half. Variety was the watchword here, with alternating verses of the Magnificat text set in plainchant and polyphony, while the polyphonic sections displayed wide-ranging structures, from flowing duo sections to full-throttled homophony. The singers ably handled these shifts, effortlessly blending various textures and styles.

Thomas Tallis’ Tunes for Archbishop Parker’s Psalter, compiled for Matthew Parker’s 1567 publication of all 150 Psalms translated into English, consists of nine short musical settings: one for each of the eight musical modes, corresponding to Parker’s organization of psalm texts into eight groups based on emotional affect, and a ninth for certain added texts. Sung as a unit, these brief pieces express a miniature series of moods that were simple and affecting. The ensemble excelled in conveying the emotional content of each text with well-blended, harmonious depictions; the absence of sopranos yielded a particularly earthy sound.

“Tallis Is Dead, and Music Dies”

Tallis and William Byrd were close both personally and professionally, to the point of the former being named godfather of the latter’s son. Byrd’s Ye Sacred Muses, an elegy composed on Tallis’ death, eloquently displays his affection for the elder master with solemn reverence. The singers beautifully matched this stately text with a tidy, unfussy performance. Strains of emotion burst forth only to accentuate Byrd’s lament that “Tallis is dead, and Music dies.”

Also in a sorrowful vein, Byrd’s Tribulationes civitatum uses imagery of civic strife as a metaphor for Byrd’s recusant Catholic faith, one widely subject to Protestant persecution during his lifetime. Here the ensemble offered more-visceral emotion, intensifying the opening undulating melodies to underscore the English state’s tribulations and delicately projecting moments in the upper voices to evoke the people’s imploring, heavenward gazes.

The singers returned to their telltale brightness for Byrd’s Vigilate, a call for watchfulness toward the end of days. Accentuating isolated moments of vivid drama within a lustrous texture, the performance was sufficiently urgent without being overly dramatic. The encore, Tallis’ renowned hymn O nata lux, was beautifully declaimed.