A good early-music ensemble like the Tallis Scholars is a testament to the vitality of creativity and a reminder that centuries-old music can still connect with audiences in powerful ways. Particularly special is the ability to juxtapose older and newer works for a program greater than the sum of its parts—precisely the feat accomplished by the Tallis Scholars in its concert Friday night at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception for The Friends of Chamber Music.
The concert began with two pieces, Seven Antiphons andMagnificat, by contemporary Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. Both pieces have a compositional style that is stark and exposed, a veritable minefield for musicians; however, the singers made Pärt sound effortless, the precise intervals and timing coming together as naturally as could be. The next piece, Tudor-era composer John Sheppard’s Sacris solemniis, required precision of a different sort—the interweaving of various contrapuntal lines and the occasional delicious, intentional clash of notes a half-step apart—which also was expertly navigated by the Tallis Scholars. Sheppard reappeared in the second half of the program with an exquisite setting of Gaude, gaude, gaude, appropriate, no less, for the following Sunday in Advent.
Several movements of Thomas Tallis’s Missa Puer natus were peppered throughout the evening, but, in fact, the Gloria and Sanctus portions of the mass might have been the least engaging pieces on the program. With their tendency to form opaque blocks of sound, those mass movements sounded less interesting compared to the Pärt and Sheppard; this reviewer also wanted to hear, from the tenor, more of the Puer natus chant that forms the backbone of the mass.
The concert ended as it began, with Pärt—this time a setting of “I am the true vine,” an important passage from the Gospel of John. The singers treated the intricate compositional process of the composer, nicely explained in the program notes, sensitively and delicately, and the effect was a gentle ebb and flow of text. All of the Tallis Scholars displayed, of course, consummate musicianship, but the four sopranos, Amy Haworth, Emma Walshe, Emily Atkinson, and Molly Alexander, stood out as being absolutely accurate in the execution of their lines, with a glorious consistency rarely seen at even the highest level of the performance world, an upper echelon that the Tallis Scholars rightly inhabit.