Tallis Scholars offer enriching, resplendent program for Boston Early Music Festival

December 13, 2014 at 12:59 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Peter Phillips led the Tallis Scholars Friday night at St. Paul’s Church in Cambridge. Photo: Albert Roosenburg

No a cappella vocal ensemble sings quite like the Tallis Scholars. Indeed, the venerable British choir has long achieved rock star status for performances of Renaissance vocal music. And through their acclaimed recordings and concerts, the ensemble has become a favorite among Boston audiences. Their concert at St. Paul’s Church in Cambridge Friday night marked their thirty-ninth annual visit to the area as part of the Boston Early Music Festival.

The ten singers that make up the Tallis Scholars, led by Peter Phillips, brought with them on their return to the city a silky, fine-tuned singing tone and a pristine ensemble blend, both of which were on fine display through an enriching program of music by William Byrd, Josquin Desprez, and Edmund Turges.

Byrd was a Catholic in newly Protestant sixteenth-century England, and many of his Latin works bear the mark of his covert religious beliefs.

That is especially evident in his motet Laetenur coeli, heard Friday night. The work’s text implores the Lord to look out for the poorest of his people, calling for “justice and abundance of peace,” as the second part of the work states. It’s an uplifting message that would have fit into the high-church Protestantism of the Elizabethan era while at the same time speaking to a secret Catholic population. The Tallis Scholars gave the work a jubilant reading.

Byrd’s Ne irascaris, another work that asks the Lord for mercy, features rich contrapuntal melodies in its thick scoring of five parts. Here, music and text combine in unexpected ways. The phrases of “Civitas sancti” and “Jerusalem desolata est,” which layer upon one another for a rich tonal blend, underscore the text’s statement that Zion has become a wilderness. The Tallis Scholars, their performance anything but desolate, rendered the music with a resonant, prayerful tone.

To open the concert, the ensemble offered a resplendent performance of Byrd’s Vigilate, which tells of Christ’s warning of the end times. The independent lines that make up the work spill over one another in smooth, rolling waves, and Phillips took care to emphasize certain passages from the texture. For the phrase “venerit repente,” which tells of the master of the house returning home suddenly, the singers traded fragments of melody that combined for a chattering collage of sound. For “dormientes,” which warns the listeners not to be asleep when that time comes, the melodies converged into solemn, slow-moving harmonies.

The Tallis Scholars also performed a number of Byrd’s English motets, works that were every bit as personal as the Latin counterparts.

Take his Ye Sacred Muses, for example, a lamentation on the death of Byrd’s teacher, Thomas Tallis. The singers gave an affecting performance, rendering the long languid lines with a twinge of sorrow.

But the most moving of Byrd’s works heard Friday night was Lullaby, a vocal quintet concerning the infant Jesus and King Herod’s slaughter of the innocents as told in the bible. The opening lines of this piece moved in sweet, delicate phrases with the soprano floating gracefully over the other voices. Here, too, the singers found the range of expression to bring out the textual imagery. This was especially poignant in the phrase “O woe, and woeful heavy day,” which the singers performed with aptly mournful tone.

Making up the bulk of the concert’s first half was Josquin Desprez’s Missa Gaudeamus. Haunting melodies and the rich harmonies that result from its interweaving lines are the frameworks upon which Josquin sets this earliest of his masses.

With subtle dynamic shades and crystalline diction, the Tallis Scholars performed an exacting reading. Throughout, their singing was spectacular, the lines and resulting harmonies ringing in tune without a ripple, the sound as clear as a mountain lake.

The singers delivered the winding melodies of the Kyrie with delicate touch but punctuated the phrases of the ensuing Christe with crisp diction, which gave the music a rhythmic vitality. The choir also found the declamation in the Credo’s “Et resurrexit,” and the basses gave the descending passages of “Confiteor” a subtle energetic thrust that was felt more than heard.

Elsewhere in the Credo, the vivid multilayered textures of Josquin’s writing were rendered with mesmerizing focus. The voices that make up the ensemble’s thick mid section—the Tallis Scholars employ four tenors as a counterweight to the pairs of sopranos, altos, and basses—stretched the inner lines of the movement into long, sustained pitches while the sopranos and basses supplied a burbling energy to the trickling passagework that flows above and below the static harmonies.

The singers also took care to bring out the exuberance laden within this music. The lines of the Sanctus unfolded in steady ripples, with the choir singing the “Hosanna in excelsis” with glorious full-voiced blend. The Agnus Dei likewise glowed with reverberant tone from the ensemble.

Those qualities also characterized the evening’s closer, a Magnificat by Edmund Turges.

Little is known about the life of this fifteenth-century English composer, but his surviving music places him among the leaders of polyphonic composition in the late-fifteenth and early-sixteenth centuries.

His Magnificat survives from sources in the Caius Choirbook, which dates from the 1520s. The work is a multi-sectional affair complete with duets, polyphonic writing for full choir, and passages that are chanted as in plainsong. The Tallis Scholars gave it all a sumptuous reading. Countertenor Patrick Craig and soprano Amy Haworth spun elegant phrases around each other in the “Quia fecit.” The sections that featured the full ensemble rang with a purity of tone that was consistent across all registers. Phillips, conducting with gentle pulsing gestures and occasional bobs of the head, led a sensitive performance.

The Boston Early Music Festival will present the Newberry Consort 8 p.m. February 6 at the First Church in Cambridge. bemf.org

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