Tallis Scholars bring warmth and illumination to a cold and snowy night

December 15, 2013 at 11:45 am

By Aaron Keebaugh

The Tallis Scholars performed in Cambridge Saturday night, presented by the Boston Early Music Festival.

Since their founding forty years ago, the Tallis Scholars have become the gold standard for performances of Renaissance vocal music. The reputation of the dectet and their director, Peter Phillips, are well-known in Boston, the team having given more than forty concerts under the auspices of the Boston Early Music Festival over the last quarter century. Boston Mayor Thomas Menino even proclaimed December 14 as Tallis Scholars Day.

If you braved the wind and snow en route to Cambridge Saturday night, the venerable ensemble made the trip worthwhile. Their concert at St. Paul’s Church, presented by the BEMF, was a brilliant spectacle of Spanish and French music fit for the holiday season.

Works by Tomás Luis de Victoria comprised the first half of the program. His motet Dum complerentur and mass Missa Gaudeamus are standard fare for the sixteenth-century: layered melodies weave into tapestries of chords before dispersing again. The airy textures and treble voicing that abounds in both works echoed in St. Paul’s spacious hall thanks to the Tallis Scholars’ characteristic blend. With gentle waving gestures, Phillips pulled luminous waves of sound from the ensemble, their tone as pure and still as a mountain lake.

Word painting is not always prevalent in sacred music of the high Renaissance, though the Missa Gaudeamus contains colorful moments. A parody of Cristóbal de Morales’ motet Jubilate Deo omnis terra, itself built upon the Gregorian plainsong Gaudeamus omnis, Victoria’s mass for All Saints’ Day has direct emotional appeal. In the Gloria, the Tallis Scholars rendered the “qui tollis peccata mundi” (he that takes away the sins of the world) with shades of melancholy. A quicker pace for the ensuing “Cum Santo Spiritu” gave the phrase palpable energy. For the Credo’s “Crucifixus,” the treble singers, entering one at a time, sang delicate, mournful phrases. The Agnus Dei culminated in mesmerizing layers of sound.

On the second half, the ensemble paired two Ave Maria settings. The first, Anton Bruckner’s voicing of the prayer, though rooted in older Renaissance tradition, glistened from pulsing dissonances and abrupt key changes. Victoria’s own eight-part version returned the Tallis Scholars to the carefully prepared suspensions, cascading phrases, and glorious resonances that are common to the composer’s style.

If Victoria’s music floats upon heavenly treble voices, the vocal lines of Philippe Verdelot, heard in two motets Saturday night, seem to rise from the earth. The thick swirls of polyphony that make up his Beata es, Virgo Maria, a variation on the Hail Mary prayer, churned in the Tallis Scholars’ lower voices.

The standout, though, was the Verdelot’s Sint dicte grates Christo. Rich and reverent, the motet dates from the Siege of Florence (1529-1530). Verdelot, trapped in the war-torn and plague-ridden city, offered the piece as a plea to John the Baptist, patron saint of Florence, for guidance and strength. The Tallis Scholars performed the work with soulful declamation.

Closing the program were two delightful motets by Francisco Guerrero. The sorrowful and wandering lines of his Usquequo, Domine capture the turmoil of the personal prayer: “How long, O Lord, will you disregard me?,” recalling Christ’s last words. The composer’s Maria Magdalene, thick with overlapping voices, tells of the subject’s transformational visit to Christ’s tomb, which the Tallis Scholars covered in a bright and energetic telling.

Before sending the audience into the snow, Phillips led the ensemble in a single encore, John Tavener’s The Lamb. The haunting and touching performance served as a fine tribute to the British composer who died last month, a musical mystic, and longtime friend of Phillips and the Tallis Scholars.

The Boston Early Music Festival will present the London Haydn Quartet, with clarinetist Eric Hoeprich, in music of Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven 8 p.m. January 18 at First Congregational Church, Cambridge. bemf.org; 617-661-1812

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