A competition for young composers run by the National Centre for Early Music may perhaps, at first glance, sound like a contradiction, but the winning pieces, performed tonight by the Tallis Scholars in Durham Cathedral, acknowledged the glories of early polyphonic choral music whilst conveying their composers’ own distinct musical ideas.

The Tallis Scholars © Eric Richmond
The Tallis Scholars
© Eric Richmond

The premise of the competition was that the entries should take, as their starting point, the In Nomine section from the Benedictus of John Taverner’s Missa Gloria tibi Trinitas; a passage that inspired English composers for over a century after it was written. Ben Rowarth, winner of the 19-25 category, set verses from Psalm 42; his piece Where is thy God? was beautifully melodic, with long sinuous phrases that expressed the yearning of the words. Under-18 winner Alex Woolf, also went for word-painting in his extraordinary Lux Aeterna, a piece that grew from expectant pianissimo low in the register to huge spine-tingling chords; it was full of harmonic surprises, and never went quite where one might expect. There was also a sense that both composers had thought carefully about the performers they were writing for, because both works were perfectly suited to the crisp clarity of the Tallis Scholars’ sound. I’m sure we will be hearing more from these talented and mature young composers, whose recognition tonight was well-deserved.

Woolf and Rowarth’s pieces stood at the centre of a programme that cleverly framed their work in its historical context; beginning with Palestrina and his less well-known German contemporary Hans Leo Hassler, before moving to Arvo Pärt, then returning to the 16th century for works by the Venetian composers Andrea and Giovanni Gabrieli. The nice balance of the programme was overturned by a misjudged encore – Parry’s great coronation anthem I Was Glad is a wonderful piece of music, and was sung superbly by the combined forces of the Tallis Scholars and Durham Cathedral Choir, but was wholly out of place here. It also had the unfortunate effect of highlighting the Cathedral choir’s weaknesses in the main programme: singing Palestrina and Gabrieli, they sounded unconfident and under-rehearsed – performing the Parry they were a different choir.

The large-scale pieces in the concert, both those with the cathedral choir and those where the Tallis Scholars performed alone were, on the whole, disappointing. Palestrina’s Laudate Domini started hesitantly and lacked the muscular punch that I would normally expect from that particular piece. Despite being written for a space even larger than Durham Cathedral, the detail of the Gabrieli double-choir pieces were lost in the acoustic, and Giovanni Gabrieli’s 16-part Omnes Gentes that closed the concert was just a wall of sound, with little definition.

Far more successful were the smaller-scale pieces by Hassler, Taverner and Pärt when the Tallis Scholars stopped trying to fight the acoustic and let it work for them. Their lean, clear sound brought out all the delicious chromatic passages of Hassler’s Ad Dominum, showing that harmonic writing four centuries ago was just as exciting as it is today. I also enjoyed Hassler’s Verbum Caro, a sparkling little gem. The two pieces by Arvo Pärt were also sung beautifully: the Nunc Dimittis was exquisitely controlled and tense, with all the dissonances perfectly balanced, and in Woman with the Alabaster Box the composer and singers together showed just how much drama can be squeezed out of a very simple setting.

The pieces by Woolf and Rowarth were followed by Taverner’s Missa Gloria tibi Trinitas Benedictus from which they had drawn their inspiration. This was the Tallis Scholars at their best, from the rich lines of the tenor and bass opening passage, through to the lilting Hosanna and the surprising major chord at the end of the piece. This was the piece on which the rest of the programme balanced, and it was sung superbly.

***11