The words sung at Saturday evening’s Tallis Scholars concert were familiar, even comforting: “Gloria in excelcis Deo”. “Agnus Dei”. “Our father, who art in heaven”. Despite the ordinariness of the phrases, the twelve singers and their conductor, Peter Phillips, managed to convey a pulsating, almost bruising excitement through the holy texts. Their program traipsed across centuries, from very old music composed by John Taverner and Thomas Tallis to 21st-century compositions by Nico Muhly and Arvo Pärt. At a certain point I found myself neglecting the supertitles as they flitted through these traditional, mostly Latin words, and instead focused on the soft colors and swelling sounds melting over and under each other.

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

Four selections from Renaissance composer John Taverner’s Missa “Gloria tibi Trinitas” comprised the bulk of the program, with his grandiose Kyrie “Leroy” opening the concert. The Scholars delivered renditions that were not just beautiful but natural. I realized, halfway through the Credo, that all of it must be very careful and calculated, these melodies they were weaving together. But it sounded as fundamental as water – which, when you get down to it, is also a force of nature, mathematical yet mystical. The cantus firmus – the “musical scaffolding”, according to our program notes – and the voices built around and on it were constructed with a sturdy, quiet thrill. Mr Phillips displayed a powerful propensity for creating big changes in dynamics or mood with small, subtle gestures.

Thomas Tallis’ Audici vocem (“I heard a voice”) required only eight of the twelve singers, but those remaining still carried a mighty effect. “In the middle of the night a great noise was heard”, read the supertitles, and I found myself thinking how true that was, despite the fact that it wasn’t the middle of the night. Even tiny changes in texture were conveyed with elegance and vigilance. The modal harmonies rolled from one end of the stage to the other; rolled over and through each other into a yarn-ball of polyphonic delight. It was both spirited and animated, yet strangely peaceful.

The program was rounded out by two exceptional and considerably newer works. Arvo Pärt’s ...which was the son of... was unexpectedly energetic, with its dotted phrases and vigorous dynamics. Despite the surprising style of the piece, it was still as meditative as the other Pärt works with which I was familiar. Each phrase literally gave birth to the next, as the opening “Jesus, which was the son of Joseph, which was the son of Heli” was carried all the way back, through an unfathomable number of generations and names, to “Adam, which was the son of God”. The ending was not only majestic but a bit of a relief.

The most recent work on the program was Nico Muhly’s Recordare, Domine, in its New York première. Where the previously-heard lines of music had fit together logically, like puzzle pieces, Mr Muhly’s new work began with fascinating stacks of dissonance. Throughout the piece, these knotty harmonies digressed, diverged, and finally converged into a more consonant sequence and eventual end. It was the least familiar-sounding of the eight works on the program, and the layers of tension kept my interest until all the tension had dissolved. Having recently experienced Mr Muhly’s music in the theater (The Glass Menagerie) and in the opera house (Two Boys), I found myself once again impressed.

As an encore, the Scholars paid tribute to Sir John Tavener, who died last Tuesday. After a brief spoken homage from Mr Phillips, they sang a setting of the Lord’s Prayer, written for them by Tavener. This final performance was appropriately solemn but also significantly moving. Although I knew the words by heart, they had never sounded so unending: a perpetual motion of newly-rememberedness that lasted long after the final notes rang out.

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