I wasn’t sure, at first, how it would feel to listen to sacred Renaissance works in St. David’s Hall, a modern, secular concert hall. I wasn’t convinced that the beauty of these pieces and the compositional effects, so suited to the vaulted lofts of a cathedral, would carry over when so far removed from their original context. So I was pleasantly surprised by just how well these pieces did work, by how the space was almost transformed by the purity of the sound. ‘Almost’ is the operative word here; I couldn’t quite shake the feeling that it was a bit strange to see these works performed outside of the context I associate them with, although the Tallis Scholars regularly perform in secular as well as sacred settings.

Members of the Tallis Scholars © Eric Richmond
Members of the Tallis Scholars
© Eric Richmond

Opening the concert with Spem in Alium, Tallis’ notoriously difficult 40-part motet, was a brave move, but proved to be an excellent opener. Joined by the Cardiff Metropolitan Cathedral Choir, the Tallis Scholars set the scene for what was to come with great swathes of ethereal sound washing over the audience. Spem in Alium requires division of the choir into eight choirs of five voices, passing the music in imitative waves from Choir I to Choir VIII before all sing together for the first time at the midpoint and the process is reversed. The performance was all the more impressive given the young age of some of the members of the Cardiff Metropolitan Cathedral Choir. I remain uncertain as to why this was performed again as the concert finale, unless it was to complete the symmetry of the programme which began and was concluded with three pieces by Tallis. This could have worked well if the concluding rendition had exceeded the first in brilliance, yet I felt that although the second performance was more precise (there were a couple of points in the first rendition where it felt as if the piece were coming slightly adrift) it had lost some of the energy and vitality of the first performance. The short, lyrical Miserere nostri would have rounded off the concert quite nicely.

The programme traced a journey in the stylistic development of the music of the reformation period: Tallis’ compositional career spanned Henry VIII’s reign to Elizabeth I’s. This lent much valuable contrast to the programme. The relaxing waves of sound of Spem in Alium flowed into the more lively Loquebantur variis linguis which was juxtaposed with the four-part miniatures of Tallis’ English-language settings of Nine Tunes for Archbishop Parker’s Psalter (which includes ‘Why Fum’th the Fight’, used by Vaughan Williams in his Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis). The dramatic contrasts between each of these short tunes served to maintain interest, making this a valuable inclusion in the concert. The contemplative In manus tuas III contrasted with Byrd’s more playful Laudibus in sanctis, a piece influenced by the madrigal style of the day, using syncopation to give a dance-like feel. This was succeeded by Tallis’ poignant Lamentations I, where the weeping melody sensitively expresses the misery of the words. The Tallis Scholars captured the emotion of the text and setting successfully.

Tonight’s performance left me with no doubts as to why the Tallis Scholars, headed by conductor Peter Phillips, are so well respected as performers of Renaissance music. It’s a cliché that I’m reluctant to use, but I really did get goosebumps listening to them, particularly in Tallis’ Loquebantur variis linguis. The clear, pure voices of the group are incredibly well suited to one another, blending beautifully and contributing a significant emotional pull. When individual voices did stand out, this didn’t seem obtrusive, but felt completely right. The intonational problems in the soprano section of Sheppard’s impossibly high Sacris solemniis were quickly recovered, with repetition of the phrase carried off exquisitely. Indeed the imperfection was only so noticeable because the rest of the concert came so close to perfection.