“This is surely music at its most extreme, from any period,” wrote Peter Phillips, in a note explaining his “chalk and cheese” programme for The Tallis Scholars at the Proms on Wednesday night. What two composers could possibly be more contrasting than the Renaissance pair of John Taverner and Carlo Gesualdo? It’s a question that seems to ignore the rather more marked musical contrasts alive and kicking today, from Glenn Branca and Bruce Springsteen, to Ludovico Einaudi and Brian Ferneyhough.

The Tallis Scholars © Eric Richmond
The Tallis Scholars
© Eric Richmond

The choice of Gesualdo pieces didn’t help things. Many of his madrigals, after all, are extreme indeed, with chromaticism that would have to wait centuries to re-emerge in Western music, but his sacred works find him in a calmer mood. These three motets, all hymns to the virgin Mary, are beautiful, crystalline, bizarre – of course they are more harmonically daring than the Taverner they sang, and of course they work in a very different way. As Phillips accurately observed, Gesualdo is a miniaturist at heart, whereas Taverner relishes more expansive forms. Differences, yes – but differences within the very ordered, similar world of religious Renaissance a cappella music. To hear these differences as acutely as I’m sure Phillips does, one has to be steeped in part-books.

When the music told its own tale, it did so with grace, as it always does with The Tallis Scholars. Their clean, pure sound is a wonderful fit for music as vast as Taverner’s Missa Gloria tibi Trinitas, a performance in which Phillips’ lifetime of experience in conducting this music was evident. The Gesualdo motets came between the movements of the Mass, and these were likewise handled with exceptional care. The third and last, Maria, mater gratiae, was the most striking in its unpredictability, its busy imitation never turning in the expected direction. But, particularly with the singers’ luxuriant tone shining throughout, this piece offered much the same to its audience as the Taverner: devout religious sentiment, beautiful sonorities. Just chalk, no cheese.

A bad performance may be beyond The Tallis Scholars, who are 40 this year and continue to dominate their field. The Gesualdo motets found them in fine form tonight: though it did the concept behind the programme few favours, this was a welcome, fresh perspective on Gesualdo in its neatness. This composer is far too often imagined as a murderous lunatic of a composer, all freakish dissonance and no subtlety. But here was Gesualdo as eccentric craftsman, a role well suited to him.

The Scholars reduced their ensemble slightly for the Gesualdo, making them into delicate chamber miniatures. For the Taverner, all fourteen voices combined, and while all was as pristine as ever there was a lot of soprano in this sound, to the extent that the inner parts often seemed relegated to accompaniment mode – a strange fate for music as evenly textured as this. Still, though, there is always much to relish in their singing, and they did full justice to the virtuosic highs of the Missa Gloria tibi Trinitas, the “In nomine” section of whose Benedictus inspired countless composers after Taverner through its beautiful complexity.

Anyone listening to just the music, not taking in either the programme notes or BBC Radio 3 presenter Catherine Bott’s mid-concert interview with Phillips, is likely to have enjoyed this concert hugely, for the beautiful music it contained. I wonder, though, about those listening gamely for the great extremes of style promised. These musicians may be scholars, but their audience shouldn’t have to be.