In a celestial choir-off, one could imagine the Tallis Scholars giving the Seraphims and Cherubims a run for their money. Subtle and exquisitely balanced, this dectet poured intense emotion into the weaving lines of polyphony in Thursday’s concert. Under the baton of their founder-director, Peter Phillips, the Tallis Scholars have become the touchstone for performances of Renaissance vocal polyphony since their inception just over 40 years ago.

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

In an almost exclusively Latin-based programme of sacred music, there was an intelligent balance between the Renaissant and the modern. The first half was dedicated to the Renaissance masters such as Byrd, Josquin and Gombert, while the second half, featured 20th century composers Whitacre, Tippett, Tavener and Pärt, all of whom had incorporated the polyphonic idiom into their music heard last night. There was some clever thematic pairing in evidence too: we were given Josquin’s and his student, Gombert’s version of King David mourning his son, Absalon in the first half, while angels formed the connection between Whitacre’s “Saint-Chapelle” and Tippett’s “Plebs Angelica” in the second half.

Right from the opening of Byrd’s Laudibus in Sanctis I was struck by the pellucid tone and fine balance between the voices which the Tallis Scholars achieved so effortlessly. The motet opens with block chords and one can witness the creeping introduction of homophonic writing in the polyphonic idiom. Nonetheless there was plenty of interwoven texture with the word “Magnificum” echoed throughout the voices before building up to “Laude Dei” which peeled forth, one line after another. The quirky rhythms of the penultimate line “Omne quod aethereis …” were delectably brought out.

Scored for five voices, Josquin, rather unusually wrote both the music and words to Absalon, Fili mi making this into an intensely personal motet. Imbuing the name “Absalon” with pathos, the singers elicited such sorrow from every word of the text. This same solemnity characterised Gombert’s Lugebat David Absalon. This time the words “fili mi” (my son) received a piteous emphasis as the voices ebbed and flowed. The emotional canvas of these motets is restrained and yet with what intensity and profundity did the Tallis Scholars depict King David’s grief. The music seemed to hover in the air after the last word had been uttered.

Two compositions by Byrd concluded the first half: Ave Verum Corpus a short Eucharistic hymn followed by the large-scale tripartite motet Tribue Domine. Both were exquisitely moulded with some wonderful antiphonal moments “O dulcis, O pie, O Jesu” in the former, while the sopranos soared heavenwards with “Spiritum Sanctum” in the latter.

American composer Whitacre’s Saint-Chapelle tells the story of a girl entering the chapel and how the angels sang to her. The narration at the start is cleverly chanted, similar to the Gregorian chant introductions for the different parts of the Mass, before breaking out into wonderful polyphony when the angels sing. The first “Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus” were like bells gently pealing while the Tallis Scholars superbly brought out the harsh minor seconds that build upon one another in the lines “Pleni sunt caeli”. The restrained quality which had characterised the dectet before the interval was gradually peeled back to reveal a visceral intensity. The “Gloria tua” was icily pronounced and the final “Sanctus” emerged as if from nowhere.

There was more than just a passing nod to Byrd and Tallis in the polyphonic texture of Tippett’s Plebs Angelica but the occasional atonality and the extreme changes of dynamics which the Tallis Scholars elicited was enough to keep the audience on edge.

The late John Tavener’s Funeral Ikos was the only work in English in last night’s programme. Here the words played an equal if not more important part than the music itself. The diction of the Tallis Scholars was scintillatingly clear in conveying the deep religious convictions of the composer himself

In proper Biblical fashion, the good wine was kept till the end and for my taste it was Pärt’s Magnificat and Nunc Dimitis that were the highlights of Thursday’s concert. Estonian composer Pärt has become famous for inventing the compositional technique “Tintinnabuli” (little bells) which could be described as liturgical minimalism. From the opening “Magnificat” of the first piece to the closing “Dominum”, the Tallis Scholars had us enthralled. The opening of the “Nunc Dimitis” too was the most extraordinarily ethereal moment I have heard yet from any choir before reaching to a glorious climax in the line “lumen ad revelationem”. The effusive applause and standing ovation which followed did not seem quite sufficient for such a heavenly rendition.