The Tallis Scholars have been one of the foremost Renaissance vocal ensemble since their inception forty years ago. This was the ensemble’s first visit to New Zealand (organised by Chamber Music New Zealand in partnership with the New Zealand Choral Federation and Dean Endowment Trust) and the performance quality made it worth every minute of the forty year wait.

Peter Phillips © Albert Roosenburg
Peter Phillips
© Albert Roosenburg

The sold-out show covered four centuries of music, from Tallis to Arvo Pärt, opening with Tallis’s Loquebantur variis linguis, a Latin Pentecostal motet built on a plainchant melody with elaborate polyphony around it. It was clear from the very first note that this is a vocal ensemble unlike any other. It was impressive that ten voices could so easily fill the Holy Trinity Cathedral without any apparent effort or strain. Each member of the Tallis Scholars has an extremely distinctive voice yet somehow the resulting blend is absolutely ravishing – not the kind of faceless perfection of some early music groups, but a blend that seems to vibrantly celebrate the differences between the voices. No one singer ever dominated over the others more than was called for by the music. I really was stunned by the sheer warmth and body to the sound; on some of their recordings the Tallis Scholars can sound a little coldly perfect (even clinical) but in the flesh the sound is generous and warm.

Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli is a more refined piece than the Tallis, Byrd or Allegri works. Church leaders of the day were unhappy with what they considered an inappropriate amount of decoration in the polyphony of church music. The tenor soloist who contributed the opening plainchant melody to the Gloria has an unusual, slightly grainy sound that created a subtle “crush” against the sounds of the other voices that was most affecting. It was in the Palestrina that one most noticed the incredible dynamic range this group can achieve; in particular some of the Benedictus was sung very softly yet still the group managed to project well and remain steady and pure – a magical moment. The final Agnus Dei was ecstatically radiant; luxuriant harmonies bringing real poignant intensity.

The famous Allegri Miserere was once considered so sacred that it was the exclusive property of the Vatican. The Pope threatened excommunication to anyone performing or distributing the music outside of the Sistine Chapel until Mozart famously broke the prohibition in 1770, copying the music out from memory after hearing it only twice. For this piece the Tallis Scholars arranged themselves slightly differently; one lone tenor chanted from high above the right-hand side of the stage while four other singers sang way back in the rear of the sanctuary. The result was an effective acoustic contrast between the immediacy of those performers still on the main stage with the unearthly distance of those to their rear. It was the soprano singing from the sanctuary who contributed the famous high Cs and they were spectacularly on pitch, with a laser-like focused tone. Adding the distance from the audience and the resonance of the performing space to the equation, one could almost perceive the sound of these notes as inhuman, like an electronic instrument rather than a voice – quite a hair-raising effect.

If neither the works of Pärt or Tavener made such an impact as the rest of programme, it was certainly not a fault of the assured performances. The female voices opened the Tavener (a setting of William Blake’s The Lamb) in perfect unison before being joined by the men in warm harmony. While having these works by two living composers certainly helped vary the mood, they couldn’t help but suffer in the company of the masterworks surrounding them. This couldn't be said of the short motets by William Byrd, the exquisitely meditative Ave verum corpus and the grander Laudibus in sanctis with its syncopations.

The Scholars concluded the concert with their namesake Thomas Tallis’s most famous work, the 40-part Spem in alium, in which they were joined by 30 hand-picked local singers. Under Peter Phillips’s superb direction, clarity was to the forefront, with no hint of the muddled sound to which this piece can easily succumb. The local singers fared confidently and for the most part accurately. Some of the sopranos had trouble with the many high As peppered throughout, but it was a valiant effort by all. Given its difficulties, it a rare treat to hear Spem in alium live and it was with great gratitude that the audience received the final part of the piece a second time as an encore. Hopefully we won’t need to wait another forty years to have this magnificent ensemble back again.