Listeners seeking sanctuary from the frantic clamor of the holiday season and the pandemic’s brooding shadow could do no better than seek out the Tallis Scholars. For some 47 years, this distinguished group of singers, led by its founder, Peter Phillips, has given the world a cappella singing at its finest. The ensemble has set a standard so high that a greater level of musical perfection is simply not conceivable. And while the Scholars sing primarily religious music and that of the European Renaissance, there is really nothing specifically theological or dogmatic about the music itself. Even listeners who might ordinarily avoid “church music” cannot help but be impressed, moved, and even transported by the impeccable artistry of the ten singers and their conductor.

Peter Phillips and the Tallis Scholars © Libby Percival | Live from London
Peter Phillips and the Tallis Scholars
© Libby Percival | Live from London

Voces8, an octet from the UK, has brought the Tallis Singers to its Live from London Christmas Festival this year. Although titled Gaudete, nary a conventional Christmas tune was included in the program, which featured strong performances of works by English Renaissance composers Thomas Tallis and John Sheppard; more contemporary masters, Benjamin Britten and Arvo Pärt; and Tomás Luis de Victoria from the Spanish Renaissance. The unifying themes of these works is the birth of Christ and the holiness of his mother, Mary.

The Tallis Scholars’ Renaissance sound is generally characterized by a bright soprano melodic line shining over an undulating current of lower voices which intertwine, taking the listener to unexpected places, and seeming as though they could flow onward forever, perhaps beyond time.

The program began with the Gloria from the Missa Puer natus est nobis by Tallis, of which three complete movements exist. The Scholars interspersed these movements with other works on the program. The Gloria, for example, was followed by John Sheppard’s intense Gaude, gaude, gaude, Maria. After the Sanctus and Benedictus from the Tallis Mass, the program featured Britten’s A Hymn to the Virgin and Arvo Pärt’s Bogoroditse Devo (Rejoice, O Virgin). This was followed by the last movement of the mass, the Agnus Dei, and the program concluded with de Victoria’s Magnificat primi toni (a 8). This sandwiching of Mass movements might sound strange in theory but worked beautifully in a program that engaged the mind at the same time that it uplifted and enriched the spirit. The cool, frosty echo of the old church serving as concert venue added to the clarity and purity of tone inherent in richly polyphonic music from this era.

Peter Phillips and the Tallis Scholars © Libby Percival | Live from London
Peter Phillips and the Tallis Scholars
© Libby Percival | Live from London

The Sheppard work, designed for Candlemas, a kind of Christian festival of light observed in February, was really astonishing, perhaps the most affecting work on the program. Unlike the other Renaissance selections, their literal meaning clothed in familiar Latin phrases, the words in this translation startle, perhaps alarm us with their ferocity: “Mary, you alone have done away with all rival beliefs... you bore God as a man... your womb was impregnated by the Holy Ghost.” Nothing politically correct in these, and other, declarations. This fierce text propels the music forward through labyrinthine twists and turns, and a dazzling display of virtuosity on both the composer’s and singers’ parts. Following the last section of Tallis’ Mass, imbued with a ringing quality reminiscent of a carillon, the program ended with de Victoria’s Magnificat primi toni (a 8), with its proclamation of Mariological faith, “My soul doth magnify the Lord”. 

Considering how these singers have not followed their usual strenuous schedule of rehearsal and in-person performance throughout the world this year, there was no evidence of strain or exhaustion at the end of this 90-minute concert. Each singer’s voice was naked and unhidden and, to my ear at least, never wavered from pitch, blending together in uncanny synchronicity. It is a rare thing to hear a performance permeated by such artistry, dedication, and respect for both the music and those who receive it. At this time of year, it is the ultimate gift.

 

This performance was reviewed from the Live from London video stream

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