It would seem that Easter has come early to Oslo. Friday marked the opening of the Oslo International Church Music Festival, a festival that this year is devoted to the ever-paschal theme of the passion. The opening concert was held in the Oslo Cathedral and was sung by the British vocal ensemble The Tallis Scholars.

The concert focused on passion, in both senses of the word. Antonio Lotti’s eight-part Crucifixus was the first piece of the concert, a richly polyphonic and dissonant depiction of the crucifixion of Christ. At the heart of the first half was Jacobus Gallus’ St John Passion. Unlike later, more famous passions, like Bach’s, Gallus’ St John’s Passion was a straightforward telling of the passion story, without arias and choruses. The piece was mostly homophonic, only breaking out into polyphony at choice moments, like the beautiful “Amen” that concluded the piece. It was also highly recitative, only occasionally breaking out into actual melodic song, as when depicting the masses calling for the crucifixion of Christ. Then followed a setting of Psalm 57, Miserere by Christopher Tye, and what was perhaps the most well-known piece of the concert, Gregorio Allegri’s Miserere, this a setting of Psalm 51, closed off the first half.

On the whole, The Tallis Scholars provided some absolutely gorgeous singing in the first half of the concert. I did feel, however, that there was a certain lack of emotional commitment and intensity. This was especially apparent in both of the Misereres and the Crucifixus, and it was also true, albeit to a lesser extent, of the Gallus St John Passion. Pieces with such an enormous amount of text can quickly become boring if it is not sung with a certain level of dramatic intensity. While it never did become outright boring, it did veer dangerously close at times.

Out of the two halves of the concert, the second half was definitely the most interesting, quite possibly because it had the most variation among the pieces. There also seemed to be a greater dramatic awareness. The second half started off with another Crucifixus setting by Lotti, this time for ten voices. While it is certainly a lovely piece of music, I couldn’t help but think that I much preferred the eight-part one that had opened the concert. The remainder of the programme was devoted to the poetry of passion in general, both in the sense of suffering and of intense love.

After the second Crucifixus came Nicholas Gombert’s Lugebat David Absalon and Josquin des Prez’s Absalon, fili mi, both depicting the grief of King David upon the death of his son Absalom. Both pieces were sung beautifully, but, unlike the pieces of the first half, there was commitment to the text, not merely attractive singing. Then followed Robert White’s Tota pulchra es, a setting of a passage from the Song of Solomon, which marked a definite change in mood of the concert, turning away from grief and suffering and now focusing on love, and later devotion. This piece was the highpoint of the concert. Not only was the singing at its most beautiful, but the more positively inclined poetry seemed to suit the ensemble better.

Hieronymous Prætorius’ five-part Magnificat concluded the concert, and luckily, things stayed as good as they had been during the Tota pulchra es. The Magnificat was definitely the most varied piece of the concert, varying between plainchant-like sections for solo tenor and polyphonic episodes for the whole choir. Along with the previous piece, the Magnificat was the most successful part of the whole concert, and again the choir seemed more at home in the more jubilant music: it was a very fitting end to the programmed concert. The encore of the evening was Omnes de Saba by Orlando di Lasso, which was nice enough, although the inclusion of what is essentially Christmas music was somewhat puzzling.

All in all, it was a fine concert, especially from the second half onwards, and The Tallis Scholars provided some wonderful singing throughout, and when they really got going, adding the required intensity, it became exceptional.