The programme for this concert – entitled “The Day of Thy Power” – comprised Robert Fayrfax’s Missa Tecum principium, and Tallis’ Lamentations I and II. In both Fayrfax’s and Tallis’ time, there was great political, social and religious unrest and change; the arrival of the Tudors and the actions of each successive heir to the throne brought tumult to England and beyond. Music, as a matter of liturgical significance, had to adapt to the differing influences of Anglicanism and Catholicism, meaning that the output of composers over the approximately one hundred years from the end of the 15th century to the end of the 16th century varied enormously in style. The Tallis Scholars’ decision to intersperse movements from the Missa with the Lamentations highlighted these differences.

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

Robert Fayrfax (1464–1521) is, somewhat surprisingly, not especially well known today. Once a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal, he was granted a chaplaincy in Herefordshire and then held a post – possibly as organist – at St Albans Abbey for approximately four years (1498–1502). It was during his time as organist there that he obtained a MusB degree from Cambridge University; a MusD followed three years later. By incorporation, he also gained a DMus from Oxford University, becoming the first recipient of this prestigious doctoral degree. His output is believed to have been prolific, but comparatively few pieces have survived. What is sure is that he was very highly regarded (some of his pieces survive in the Eton, Caius and Lambeth Choirbooks), and his influence can be seen in the works of more familiar composers such as Taverner and Tallis.

Fayrfax’s Missa Tecum principium is a highly elaborate, five-voice setting of the Mass. The polyphonic music is based around a tenor cantus firmus from a Christmas antiphon and comprises four movements. Conductor Peter Phillips explained that he had intended to programme a Kyrie, but since that movement was not, at the time Fayrfax composed the Mass, part of the Mass Ordinary, he had to find one from elsewhere. He chose Taverner’s Leroy Kyrie – a four-part setting, with the parts more balanced than those of his earlier works with soaring treble lines. The Tallis Scholars' voices were well-matched and finely balanced, so that the audience could simply listen contemplatively. Thereafter followed the Gloria of the Mass, which, at nearly quarter of an hour’s duration, I think could have done with more expression – granted, dynamics would not have been written into the original, and they might not be (or have been) an appropriate consideration in liturgical performance, but as a concert item it could have been spared a little artistic licence. Similarly, the Credo, with its stretched, melismatic lines, could have benefited from greater dynamic variation; controversial, perhaps, but as a festive Mass I felt it could have been sung more joyously. Tallis’ Lamentations I, written for the Matins services during Holy Week and markedly more doleful than the Mass, were more expressively sung, though Phillips took it at a rather fast pace, slowing down rather dramatically for the end of each section.

The second half of the concert was more enjoyable. The Sanctus was immediately dynamically more lively, and although focus was lost for a brief moment, the singers seemed to relish Fayrfax’s rhythmic nuances. One issue, however, persisted from the first half: the differing pronunciations by the two sopranos of the “-us” ending of some of the Latin words, which might easily have been ironed out in rehearsals. Tallis’ second set of Lamentations are inherently more expressive than the first set, and so the singing was, too. False relations were milked for what they were worth (a good thing!), the melismatic settings of the Hebrew letters at the start of each verse built up gradually before fading away, and the musical interpretation of the words was more pronounced – “omnes persecutores...” (“all her persecutors overtook her in anguish”) was especially dramatic.

There was plenty to enjoy about this concert, not least of which was the superb musicianship of the singers, who seemed to be highly aware of each other’s voices. The choral blend was, as ever, spot-on. There are some fantastic recordings of the Fayrfax Mass, but I appreciated being able to hear it live. The choice of Mouton’s Salva nos, Domine as the encore was fitting, and it was sung very well indeed. It was not altogether The Tallis Scholars’ finest performance, and better care could have been taken in collating the programme, too: two obvious errors were the printing of the full text of the Credo, when the music stopped at “cuius regni non erit finis. Amen”, and the omission of the text of the Benedictus, but I very much doubt that either of those issues will have lost the group any fans. They are still, after nearly 40 years, one of the foremost early-music vocal ensembles in the world.