As part of the Choral at Cadogan Series, the venerable Tallis Scholars, now in its 38th year, brought a serious programme juxtaposing the sacred music of the Spanish Renaissance composer Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548-1611), whose 400th anniversary we are celebrating this year, and that of his Italian near contemporary Giovanni Perluigi Palestrina (1525/6-1594).

© Eric Richmond
© Eric Richmond

The programme featured Victoria’s masterpiece, Lamentations of Jeremiah for Holy Week (albeit belatedly), as well as music for Pentecost by both Victoria and Palestrina. For a programme of such austere religious music, I would have preferred the full resonance of a church rather than the relatively dry acoustics of the Cadogan Hall, but on the plus side, we were able to enjoy the clarity of the intertwining vocal lines, performed with assurance by the ten excellent singers of the Tallis Scholars, directed by Peter Phillips.

They opened the concert appropriately with two works for Pentecost: two settings of Dum complerentur by Victoria and Palestrina respectively. Victoria’s setting is very colourful with the two sections both culminating into a joyful Allelujah celebrating the descent of the Holy Spirit -- sounding like the ringing of bells. Palestrina’s setting is on the whole more homophonic, although punctuated with antiphonal effects, and the singers highlighted the lucidity of the harmony.

The Tallis Scholars recorded the complete Lamentations last year and for this concert, they chose two sets: the Lamentations for Maundy Thursday and for Holy Saturday. Each set is comprised of three Lamentations, each culminating in the moving refrain “Jerusalem, convetere (Jerusalem, turn to the Lord your God)”. Victoria’s setting is simple and predominantly chordal, but he achieves dramatic effects by varying the number of voices (the work is variously scored for three to eight voices) as well as contrasting the high and low voices. The voices were perfectly balanced throughout and the singers conveyed the emotional intensity of this poignant work. The second Lamentation from the set for Holy Saturday was my personal highlight.

The two Palestrina motets placed on either side of Victoria’s Lamentations, Peccantem me quotidie and Tribulationes civitatum, are both based on austere texts and the music also was appropriately solemn. Especially in the former work, which asks God for mercy for our daily sins, the singers controlled and sustained the melodic line beautifully, leading up to the moving climax of heartfelt plea to God.

The final two items brought a joyful conclusion to this otherwise solemn concert. The six-part Vidi speciosam by Victoria was jubilantly sung, and the word-painting – for example where the text describes “the dove circling about the flowers” – was vividly depicted. Palestrina’s well-known motet Tu es Petrus, a magnificent setting featuring diversity of textures and sonority, closed the concert on an affirmative note.