The Tallis Scholars enraptured a sold-out Alexander Hall at Richardson Auditorium in Princeton, living up to the high standards that audiences have set for the world-renowned ensemble. Their wide-ranging repertoire was reflected in Monday’s performance, which offered a mix of traditional pieces by composers such as Palestrina as well as contemporary works.

© Eric Richmond
© Eric Richmond

The concert opened with the bouyant Hodie Christus natus est by Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck. The Dutch composer has long been appreciated by aficionados of early keyboard music since some of his works have been preserved in the popular Fitzwilliam Virginal Book. Many of his choral masterpieces have lain dormant until the last decade, however. The Tallis Scholars performed Sweelinck’s Hodie beautifully and (for me) this was the highlight of the entire evening despite its modest length.

The concert featured music by other lesser-known composers, such as Robert White, whose Tota pulchra es was sung sweetly and plaintively. Regina caeli by Crisóbal Morales was the only Spanish work in the evening’s international choral buffet. While the music was beautiful in and of itself, this performance lacked the same attention to detail and enthusiasm found in the ensemble’s other interpretations. Perhaps after exploring more 16th-century Spanish repertoire the group will master the unique sounds and style inherent in the music.

Works by Arvo Pärt and Benjamin Britten rounded out the performance, showing the Tallis Scholar’s ability to interpret difficult music from a variety of periods. To call the pieces ‘modern’, though, is to ignore the composers’ deep fascination with the works of their forefathers and the polyphonic tradition of the high Renaissance.

Indeed, to the untrained ear (and even to some trained ears!) it is easy to mistake Pärt’s Magnificat for one of the several other Magnificat settings which were on the program. Periodically, there are clues that Pärt’s works are modern. For example, in the Nunc dimittis the Scholars sang, some of the text was set in a way that Palestrina would never compose. The metrical accents in the words ‘Gloria Patri, et Filio, et Spiritui Sancto’ did not match and the metrical accents in Pärt’s musical setting. For Pärt, whose craft is matched only by a small number of other living composers, he is most certainly aware when aspects of his compositions are anachronistic.

A performance by the Tallis Scholars is often like watching an episode of Saturday Night Live; the quality varies depending upon who happens to be a part of the ensemble at the time. Peter Phillips founded the group in 1973, 2 years before SNL first aired, and like the popular TV show, the group has rotated through many members since.

The standout voices by far were sopranos Janet Coxwell and Amy Haworth – and not just because they sang what was often the most prominent musical line. Ms. Coxwell’s voice has a truly transcendent quality, and she sang more straight-toned than the younger Ms. Haworth, whose delicate, often unnoticeable vibrato added welcome warmth and color to the soprano part. Together, their voices were incredibly clear and lithe, yet always strong, robust, and rich in overtones. The slight contrast in these two voices is truly representative of a shift in aesthetics for early music singing. That their voices combine so divinely proves that there is room for both, even within a single performance.

Compared to Coxell, Haworth, and the other sopranos – Amy Wood and Cecilia Osmond – the male singers sounded a bit turgid. The male alto, Patrick Craig, ‘covered’ his sound so much, one wonders what his full voice sounds like. ‘Covering’, a term ambiguous to non-singers, places vocal production back further in the throat than it needs to be and thus restrains some tone production. For some, this has the benefit of ‘darkening’ the sound by adding more low overtones, or for younger singers, making them sound more mature. A certain amount of covering can be welcome for some voices, or during particular moments for effect. However, hearing Mr. Craig and some of his colleagues sing in this manner so much and so continuously makes the music sound affected and unnatural.

Regardless of one's taste in vocal production, no one would deny the exceptional musicianship of every singer on stage. One must also consider that the pieces they sing, originally spaced throughout religious celebrations, take an incredible amount of stamina to sing in succession.

The entire evening, the audience sat so quietly and attentively that they even followed the instruction at the bottom of the text-and-translation insert: ‘Please do not turn the page until the completion of each piece’. The resulting whirlwind of page-turning after White’s Tota pulchra es caused a chuckle in the audience and on stage, as the singers looked all around the auditorium and beamed.

Next time Princeton University Concerts invites an ensemble such as the Tallis Scholars to perform, they plan to host the concert in the gothic Princeton University Chapel – a more appropriate sound space to accommodate this repertoire.