The first thing I must say about the Tallis Scholars’ Prom 28 is that it was my most moving experience of this year’s Proms so far. Bar none.

© Eric Richmond
© Eric Richmond

When Peter Phillips’ ensemble comes to the Royal Albert Hall, the question in one’s mind is not whether they will give a world-class performance – they usually do. But as with most musicians, with the exception of larger orchestras, it is more difficult to predict how their sound will sit in the unflattering acoustic of this iconic building. In the event, the acoustic was the last thing on the audience’s minds. Peter Phillips’ group picked out every spiritual nuance and gorgeous turn of polyphony in each of these three distinctive works by Thomas Luis de Victoria, adding their unique musicality to the Spanish composer’s famously sonorous composition technique.

2011 may mark four hundred years since de Victoria’s death, but it is never too late for a Proms premiere; there were two in Prom 28. The first debutant of this evening was Dum Complerentur, (full title Dum complerentur, dum ergo essent) a five-minute polyphonic gem from de Victoria’s 1572 first volume of motets. Phillips built its layers of polyphony gently towards a characteristically fortified climax; he encouraged the delightful soprano phrases to rise to prominence and shaped the ringing ‘Alleluias’ with precision, without restricting expression.

With the Lamentations for Holy Friday we heard an additional sixth voice part and a richer sonic palette. A more homophonic movement, conveying the pious reflection appropriate for use in the highest church circles. But De Victoria’s Officium Defunctorum Requiem, finished in 1605, was the tour de force; written for the sister of Emperor Philip II, it possesses craftsmanship fit for royalty.

It’s hard to fault the Tallis Scholars’ interpretation of the word-painting, swift expansions and contractions to the score that voice the vulnerability and ecstasy of religious fervour. One could pick out any of the Requiem’s twelve stages for its individual profundity and sad beauty. Ironically, the Libera Me stood out as particularly haunting thanks to the hall’s largeness, its plea ringing out into the wide space.

It all went to show once again that Peter Phillips and his Scholars have perfected the art of Renaissance sacred music, and that smaller ensembles can take on the Albert Hall and leave us spellbound.