Celebrating their 40th anniversary year, The Tallis Scholars presented a programme of Renaissance polyphony centred around another anniversary – that of Carlo Gesualdo, the 400th anniversary of whose death falls this year. The first half of the concert was a complete performance of Gesualdo’s masterpiece, the Tenebrae Responsories for Holy Saturday (1611). This dramatic sequence of texts is treated with passion and virtuosity by Gesualdo, and made use of the singers’ full range of vocal colour and texture. With beautifully interweaving verse sections and powerful homophony contrasting with wonderfully angular, disjunct lines painting the text, the Responsory set passed through the full range of emotion. The Tallis Scholars, whose tone and blend is almost unsurpassed, brought clarity and depth to Gesualdo’s writing. The intricate solo sections were passed with ease through all the singers and the purity of the upper voices contrasting with the rich (and very low!) bass, while never losing the precision of the inner voices, was extremely impressive.

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

In the second half of the evening, we were treated to a survey of other compositional mavericks – none more so than Orlando de Lassus, whose Timor et Tremor (1564) is one of the more experimental works of its time – pushing harmonic conventions to their limits. The musical setting reflects the fragmented nature of the text, with surprising chromatic movement and a striking “miserere” section, and some fun syncopated “confundar” entries, which the singers performed with bounce and vigour.

Extreme chromaticism became a theme for the second half, with the unexpected opening section of Jacobus Gallus’ (1550–91) Mirabile Mysterium gradually mutating into constantly shifting harmonies and some stunning homophony, beautifully poised and still. This tranquil mood led us nicely into Giaches de Wert’s Ascendente Jesu in naviculum (1581), with bouncy offbeat writing describing the commotion of the waters, followed by a great calming of the seas, which suited the perfect blend of The Tallis Scholars’ singers perfectly. The swift changes of mood were managed dexterously by the group. Musae Jovis, a lament on the death of Josquin de Prez, is best known in the setting by Nicolas Gombert, but this setting by Benedictus Appenzeller (c. 1480/88–after 1558) was full of scrunchy harmonies and beautiful antiphonal work between the upper and lower voices, ending in a generally calmer feeling with poignant suspensions and a wonderfully rich and blended last chord.

Cipriano de Rore, who was hailed by Monteverdi as the father of the early Baroque compositional style known as the seconda prattica, was a composer of great innovation and experiment. The opening canon of this male-voice setting of Calami sonum ferentes (1554) was incredibly modern, with a long, ascending chromatic phrase repeated through all the parts, colouring the entire piece. The one-per-part texture allowed for some beautiful phrasing and antiphonal work, in which one declamatory voice is echoed by the others. Ad Dominum cum tribularer by Hans Leo Hassler (1601) began with another ascending chromatic phrase, which is echoed throughout the choir and reflected in the descending chromatic movement at the end of the piece, creating an almost palindromic effect. The purity and angelic sound of the sopranos was simply beautiful in this piece.

We finished the concert with the pain of the biblical story of Rachel and her lost sons, in which Mikolaj Zieleński sets a single soprano voice, representing Rachel herself, echoed by the rest of the group in anguish. However, the final Adoramus te by Claudio Monteverdi was one of the highlights of the evening. An intense reflection of the risen Christ, the rich full sound of the combined Tallis Scholars forces provided wonderful phrasing and blend in this miniature masterpiece. The antiphonal sections between the upper and lower voices were tastefully managed and the low bass in the final chord was spine-tingling. After such an emotionally rich concert, it was hard to think what could act as an encore, but Peter Phillips made exactly the right decision with Pearsall’s beautiful madrigal Lay a Garland, full of scrummy harmonies and poignant suspensions.