Singing polyphonic music requires a specific sound. To be truly effective there must be a beautifully rounded and well blended choral sound, but at the same time the individual lines must be clearly decipherable within the overall texture. This is a balance that The Tallis Scholars seem to find effortless. There is precision of intonation, of vocal blending, and of rhythm, and all the singers achieve this while maintaining their own personal vocal colour. Their concert in Dresden’s Frauenkirche began with a work by the composer who gave them their name, Thomas Tallis. His short Loquebantur variis linguis tells the story of Pentecost and is full of playful rhythmic gestures and syncopations. The ensemble sang with a sense of rejoicing and brought a real fizz to this often dry music.

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

Sadly this was not the case throughout. The main work of the first half was Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli, perhaps the composer’s most famous work. It was written at the time of the reformation, when text clarity was of paramount importance. The reformation, led by Martin Luther, was leading to spoken services, with communal hymns and chorales, where all singers sing the same text in unison to make it easy to understand. The reformers claimed that Palestrina’s polyphonic style made the text unintelligible. In his Missa Papae Marcelli, Palestrina set about to prove them wrong, with a polyphonic piece with a clearly decipherable text. Most consider the result to be only a partial success in this regard, though a masterpiece of Italian polyphony. However, in the hands of The Tallis Scholars every word can be heard, and every textual nuance heard. Their diction combined with the clarity of the polyphony’s multiple voices makes the text more audible than I’ve ever heard it in this work. However, this long somewhat monostylistic work isn’t designed as a concert piece, and when it’s sung as one, it requires something more than The Tallis Scholars gave. There was very little sense of the words having any meaning, and no amount of style and precision can replace a sense of spiritual significance.

The second half began with its longest and best known work, Allegri’s Miserere. This repetitive work, rotating between two choirs and a solo chant all with the same music throughout, is very regularly performed and can become boring very easily. But The Tallis Scholars’ performance, though simple, was solemn and beseeching, a very different way of praising God to that found in the Tallis at the beginning of the concert. Though usually performed with a full choir and offstage soloists, the group performed one to a part in both choirs, though the spatial displacement of the two choirs still created a wonderful stereo effect, and choirs with two very different colours. The ensemble sung with a beautiful and uniform sound which gave the impression that many more were in fact singing. The intermittent chant was delivered with a great sense of devotion, and the top notes of the offstage choir’s soprano were effortlessly floating. This was a really magical performance of this incredibly difficult work.

The two modern works both benefited from the Scholars’ purity of sound. John Tavener’s The Lamb paired well with the Allegri, another solemn expression of faith, but with a thoroughly different musical language. The Pärt Magnificat has dissonances which are so much more chilling when sung with The Tallis Scholars’ straight tone than when sung by many other choirs. The result was really electric at the start, but I didn’t feel any sense of the contrasts in these works. The styles of both Tavener and Pärt may seem to lack contrast at first glance, but this a way of focusing the listener and the performer onto the contrasts present in the tiny details, details which weren’t always brought out by the choir here.

For the end of the concert there was a return to polyphony, with Josquin’s Absalon fili mi and Byrd’s Laudibus in sanctis. While the Josquin was well sung, it was in the Byrd that the ensemble really shone. Like Tallis, Byrd uses great rhythmic variety and contrasts between monophony and polyphony creating a great variety of textures and the resulting work is dynamic and antimated. The Tallis Scholars, clearly most at home in this English Tudor repertoire, sang with energy and verve, and brought the concert to a very satisfying end.