The last Sunday night before Christmas is traditionally an evening for carol services, but the Tallis Scholars gave a cool and stylish alternative, performing a selection of works devoted to the Virgin Mary at the Sage, Gateshead. The programme was built around four very different settings of the Magnificat, Mary’s great hymn of praise, from the relatively simple early polyphony of John Taverner, to the stark beauty of Arvo Pärt’s setting.

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

The opening piece, Sweelinck’s cheerful Hodie Christus Natus Est set the tone for the evening’s singing. It started very simply, with no fuss; one quickly given note, and a calm, relaxed performance. Throughout the evening, the singing was exquisitely controlled, and never loud, except for the very occasional climax, as the singers allowed the excellent acoustics of the Sage to do the work for them. This meant that throughout the evening every single part could be heard perfectly, allowing the interweaving lines of the polyphony to work to full effect, even in Palestrina’s double-choir Magnificat, easily the grandest piece of the evening.

Hieronymus Praetorius (apparently no relation to his more famous contemporary, Michael), was noted for bringing the Venetian trick of writing for several choirs to North Germany, and his setting of the Magnificat was full of Italian colour. The Tallis Scholars brought out all the fun of Praetorius’s word painting: the insistent, repeated drum-like effect on the words “Dispersit superbos” (“Scattered the proud”) and the playful false endings of the drawn-out “In saecula saeculorum” (“World without end”).

The inspiration for Praetorius’ polychoral writing came from composers such as Andrea Gabrielli, and I particularly enjoyed the Tallis Scholars’ performance of Gabrielli’s Jubilate Deo Omnis Terra (Psalm 100 – “O be Joyful in the Lord all ye Lands”). The women’s voices were bell-like but never boyish, and the crispness of the higher voices contrasted wonderfully in this work with the extraordinary beauty of Rob Macdonald’s big, rich bass sound, until all the parts came together in the intricate rhythms of the final section.

This was followed by a tender performance of Monteverdi’s Adoramus Te, a relatively simple but stately piece, which helped to cool things down ready the next work – Arvo Pärt’s Magnificat. The Tallis Scholars’ performance of this piece was, quite simply, extraordinary. The clarity of their voices, and their controlled pianissimo singing, brought out all the stark beauty of Pärt’s dissonances and bleak open chords, and gave a spine-tingling excitement and freshness to what was, for me, a familiar piece. The loud climaxes were never overdone, and were all the more powerful for it, and I was left feeling that I never want to hear that work again, for this performance could surely never be bettered. The Nunc Dimittis which followed continued in the same vein, breaking out into glorious sunshine on the word “Lumen” (“Light”).

Another well-known work was shown in a new light in the second half: Benjamin Britten’s Hymn to the Virgin. The English sections were sung in lovely long, unbroken phrases and the sopranos allowed the lower parts to come through more than most choirs do. A surprising increase in tempo in the last verse brought unexpected excitement to this intense little work.

As the Gloria at the end of Palestrina’s eight-part Nunc Dimittis brought the concert to a cheerful close, I was disappointed that the concert seemed over so quickly. Happily, Peter Phillips and the Tallis Scholars returned to the stage for an encore, and sang Johannes Eccard’s Maria wallt zum Heiligtum (“When to the Temple Mary went”), a simple, almost chorale-like setting which provided a poised and simple close to the concert.