By Susan Miron
The Tallis Scholars are unquestionably today’s most renowned exponent of Renaissance sacred music.
Going to hear Tallis Scholars in December has, for many, become a much-anticipated annual excursion. The group’s concert last Friday was their thirtieth consecutive appearance in Boston; it was presented by the Boston Early Music Festival, a record no other sponsor can match. Now in their forty-fifth season under their splendid founding music director, Peter Phillips, the Tallis Scholars are unquestionably today’s most renowned exponent of Renaissance sacred music. The statistics are pretty staggering. As of 2015, they have given over 2,000 concerts (earning them unimaginable amounts of frequent fliers’ miles) worldwide. Their some 5 dozen recordings, all on the Gimmel label, have won as many awards and rave reviews as is legal. Audiences adore them, and would most likely buy tickets even if the program was unannounced.
Phillips characterizes their distinct sound in a Sonograma interview:
I want my singers to sing without too much vibrato, what we say is straight, but not too straight because then it´s boring, though, but straight is…the tuning is good because polyphony is very complicated music, I mean, if the details are not clear, then the piece is spoilt, the public can´t hear what the details are.
I think one change in the time we´ve been singing renaissance music is that we sing probably louder than we did, and I think we learnt how to sing more strongly while still not singing with a big vibrato, in an operatic style, I think that´s what we learnt in the last twenty years.
In the 16th century the singers did not have trained voices, they just sang like you or me would sing, that means that probably they sang quite quietly and most of the music that we sing was written for small buildings, not for big cathedrals but for chapels and law courts and so and so. I think if we heard a performance from the 16th century we would be very surprised how quiet and unpresented… the voices are not produced, they are just singing amongst themselves. We don´t do that at all, we stand, so the public can see us all and we sing really strong into the public, into big buildings, very big buildings.
On Friday night, the Tallis Scholars appeared in Memorial Church at Harvard University, a much smaller venue than their usual (digs at) St. Paul’s Church. Their program, A Renaissance Christmas, featured, among others, the beloved composer Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrana (1525/6-1594), Hieronymus Praetorius (1560-1629), and a heartbreaking “Lullaby” by William Byrd (ca. 1540-1623), a personal favorite. (You can hear a Tallis Scholars performance on You Tube).
There was a gorgeous “Magnificat” by a composer about whom we know very little, John Nesbett (d.1488). It was like the ethereal soundtrack for a beautiful dream. I could have listened to “Lullaby” all night long, but Nesbett’s “Magnificat,” which Phillips considers “an absolute masterpiece,” was the evening’s big discovery for me, at least among the early music compositions. All the pieces were performed with the inimitable sound we recognize as the Tallis Scholars, with its focus on purity and clarity, expert tuning at the service of a distinctive blend.
Oddly my two favorite pieces were very contemporary. Nico Muly (b. 1981) composed “Rough Notes” for the Tallis Scholars. It’s the first piece of secular music he’s written for this ensemble. “I tried here,” he wrote, “to maximize their skills as colorists and dramatic communicators.” This haunting composition sets two fragments from Robert Falcon Scott’s diaries, penned toward the end of his doomed trek to Antarctica. The program notes explain that “the first part depicts the extraordinary aurora australis in quite music terms, with arches, bands, and curtains, always in rapid movement. The second is a severe foreshadowing of the crew’s deaths, promising the they will ‘meet death with as great a fortitude as ever in the past.’ The poetry of the first section leads to a sort of resolute but resigned conclusion, facing the inevitable but never quite reaching it in text or music.” Gloomy as this sounds, I was very moved by the performance, and determined to seek out more of this gifted composer’s works.
The encore was another gem. John Tavener’s (1944–2013) “The Lamb” is a beguiling 1982 musical setting of William Blake’s poem “The Lamb” from his Songs of Innocence. The piece was first performed on Christmas Eve at the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols in Kings College Chapel, Cambridge, and it immediately generated international interest. It is a piece I just loved, like so much on this program.
The fact is, I have become one of those Tallis Scholars fans who attend their December concerts here without even knowing what they have decided to sing. The evening is guaranteed to contain an unusual variety of memorable music, all sung to perfection.
Susan Miron, a harpist, has been a book reviewer for over 20 years for a large variety of literary publications and newspapers. Her fields of expertise were East and Central European, Irish, and Israeli literature. Susan covers classical music for The Arts Fuse and The Boston Musical Intelligencer.