The Tallis Scholars, led by founder Peter Phillips, brought their definitive and elegant approach to Renaissance polyphony to Kansas City in their tenth appearance presented by The Friends of Chamber Music last weekend at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.
Peter Phillips and the Tallis Scholars are currently celebrating their 40th anniversary year, and for their 95th concert of the year so far, they came to Kansas City to perform for an impressive tenth time on The Friends of Chamber Music series. Under Phillips’s direction, the Tallis Scholars have explored and standardized the field of Renaissance polyphony, a genre of music that was largely underrepresented before the influence of the Scholars. The group’s commitment to purity of sound and execution has become the standard-bearer for Renaissance groups that came after, and it is a reputation that is well deserved based on Friday night’s performance.
The cavernous and beautiful setting of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception was a perfect backdrop for the ten-person singing group, both acoustically and aesthetically. The high ceiling and marble interior projected sound in a way that I am confident was equal from the front of the room, where I sat, to the choir loft at the rear of the room. The group’s blend and sound was everything I expected it to be from my years of Norton Recorded Anthology perusals. Perhaps my proximity to the sopranos caused my impression that the high voices were occasionally too loud or strident as they soared above the rest of the group. Generally this overpowering high voice phenomenon and a few uncoordinated consonant closures were my only complaints throughout the concert.
Contrary to my preconceived notions about the group as a straight tone-only group, I was pleased to hear that the Scholars’ sound is achieved by the blending of several different qualities of voice. Round and pure soprano combined with somewhat reedy tenor sound to create an interesting mixed treble; bass voices were variably subtle and strong, and the combination of one female and one male alto led to an intriguing and earthy sound that was among the most compelling heard all night when set apart from the group.
The program opened with Tomás Luis de Victoria’s Dum complerentur, dum ergo essent, a motet for Pentecost that demonstrated the group’s agility admirably, which made a sudden shift to homophony all the more shocking and marked. Frighteningly effective dynamic contrast communicated the intensity of the line translated as “A sound from heaven came upon them, alleluia, like a hurricane in its fury.” Victoria’s Missa Gaudeamus comprised the rest of the first half. Throughout this work, the smaller subsets of singers were most effective and sensitive, as in the bass, tenor, and alto trio in the Gloria and the high voice quartet in the middle of the Credo. The switch from the hollow-sounding alto start and patient tempo of the Sanctus to the full choir ending of the Benedictus made a brilliant contrast as the segment ended with joyfully diverse chord clusters.
The program’s second half had an obviously Marian persuasion to it, opening with Beata es Virgo Maria by Phillippe Verdelot, which was characterized by a constant underpinning of slowly moving bass voices that served as a unifying timbre for the patient piece. Sint dicte grates Christo was written by Verdelot as an expression of hope and joy to the Florentine people amid the Siege of Florence. This work’s extraordinary high tenor work and the startling minor tonality of the final “Alleluia” garnered “wows” from around the room.
A setting of Ave Maria was immediately Romantic in its major tonality and chromatic motion. The almost fully homophonic work was certainly different from the rest of the 15th- and 16th- century works, but the Scholars’ flexibility was impressive as they switched quickly from one style to another. Bruckner’s setting contained the most dramatic range and dynamic contrast, and stood sharply against the subsequent Ave Maria à 8, the well-known setting by Victoria, which is serene and was marred only by the occasionally thin projecting sound of the tenors. Two works by Francisco Guerrero finished the program, and while blending problems in the high voices started off the first piece, Usqueque Domine, the delicious harmonic shifts at the end of Maria Magdalene brought the concert to an exuberant close.
The Tallis Scholars are the best at what they do, and it shows in the consistency of their performance throughout a weighty program. Whether singing works from the Renaissance, Romantic era, or of the late English composer John Tavener, whose The Lamb served as a touching and haunting encore, the Scholars demonstrated the flexibility of artistry that we’ve come to expect during this group’s forty-year tenure.
The Friends of Chamber Music
Peter Phillips and the Tallis Scholars
December 13, 2013
Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception
416 W. 12th St. Kansas City, MO
For more information, visit http://www.chambermusic.org
Top Photo: Tallis Scholars (Photo by Eric Richmond)