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<em>Choral at Cadogan</em>: The Tallis Scholars directed by Peter Philips
25 Sep 2017

Choral at Cadogan: The Tallis Scholars open a new season

As The Tallis Scholars processed onto the Cadogan Hall platform, for the opening concert of this season’s Choral at Cadogan series, there were some unfamiliar faces among its ten members - or faces familiar but more usually seen in other contexts.

Choral at Cadogan: The Tallis Scholars directed by Peter Philips

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: The Tallis Scholars with Peter Philips (centre)

Photo credit: Nick Rutter

 

This, and the striking opening of the first piece, Palestrina’s motet Laudate pueri, set me ruminating about nature of an ‘ensemble sound’, and although the following tangential digression might be a little indulgent, it is not irrelevant to my experience and review of the music performed.

The Tallis Scholars’ website lists the following six personnel as ‘The Singers’: soprano Amy Haworth (who first sang with the group in 2005), soprano Emma Walshe (2010), alto Caroline Trevor (1982), tenor Steven Harrold (1993) and basses Robert Macdonald (1994) and Tim Scott Whiteley (2007), only four of whom were performing on this occasion. Any long-standing ensemble, instrumental or vocal, will inevitably have a flexible constitution over time: indeed, Harrold’s first sustained spell was from 1996 to 2001 (in 1998 he replaced John Potter in the Hilliard Ensemble, the members of which remained unchanged from then until the group disbanded in 2014) and has recently re-joined the Tallis Scholars. And, the distinctive and defining ‘sound’ of a group will principally be shaped by the predilections and practices of its director or conductor. Peter Philips founded The Tallis Scholars in 1973 and has now appeared in almost 2000 concerts with the ensemble.

However, on this occasion I found that some individual voices were more conspicuously discernible than I had expected and that, particularly in the first half of the concert, The Tallis Scholars did not always coalesce the imitative polyphony into a homogenous sonority, or capture the ‘impersonal’, transcendent beauty of music which is designed to sound, literally, as if it comes from another ‘world’, the heavens.

Perhaps, it was simply that these are early days in the new season; I wondered how much time the group had had to rehearse (some eyes were at times quite wedded to the score) and the works performed did represent some of the rarer reaches of this repertory. But, at the risk of being accused of ‘nit-picking’, I felt that even visually the ensemble did not consistently present a ‘united front’. In other contexts, I have admired bass Greg Skidmore’s relaxed engagement with the music sung (indeed, I drew attention to this quality during a recent performance by Ex Cathedra here at the Cadogan Hall) but on this occasion his tendency to use only one hand to hold the score suggested a casual insouciance which sometimes jarred with the more formal comportment of most of the other singers.

Digression over. But, such thoughts were in my mind during what was a festive but not particularly reverential performance of Palestrina’s Laudate pueri, in which the tuning took a while to settle and the high soprano and tenor lines were often very prominent (admittedly the textures of this motet are constantly changing), but which also shone warmly when the text praised the Lord ‘high above all nations … his glory above the heavens’, reflecting Palestrina’s magnificent ‘architecture’.

The singers’ rearranged their semi-circle in descending pitch order after the ‘double choir’ position adopted for the opening motet, and the gentle soprano and alto entries at the start of the first part of Palestrina’s Virgo prudentissima did create an air of wonder and veneration. As the other voices joined the seven-part polyphony, there was a calm fluency and ease. Philips’ gestures were small but guided the ensemble skilfully towards the culminating cadences, although there was a sense of ‘searching’ for the intonation of the final cadence.

The more decorative melodic style and exploratory dissonances of Monteverdi’s Messa a quattro voci da cappella of 1650 seemed to suit The Tallis Scholars better. The text repetitions of the Kyrie had a stirring cumulative energy, though I’d have liked a few more consonants, especially from the sopranos. In the Gloria there was a vivacious sense of release as the homophonic ‘Gratias agimus tibi’ blossomed into vibrant polyphony, ‘propter magnam gloriam tuam’ (We give thanks to thee for thy great glory), and the declaration ‘Quoniam tu solus Sanctus’ (For thou only art Holy) inspired a fresh impetus, before coming to rest with an ‘Amen’ of assured contentment.

The Credo’s opening address to the almighty Father, ‘Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible’, was wonderfully lucid, leading to a cadential statement, ‘by whom all things were made’, which was reverently hushed. Reflection on Christ’s suffering and death at the hands of Pontius Pilate prompted some striking dissonances in the inner voices, but the ensuing major key and melismatic ascents brightly conveyed joy at the resurrection. After the Credo’s extended and florid ‘Amen’, the basses’ slow stepwise descent established a soothing serenity at the start of the Sanctus but the ‘Hosanna’ had a vigour and warmth that overflowed into the following Benedictus. At the close of the Agnus Dei, though, stillness and peace were restored.

Despite Cadogan Hall’s ecclesiastical origins (it opened in 1907 as a New Christian Science Church designed by Robert Fellowes Chisholm) its acoustic is rather drier than that of the Venetian churches where Monteverdi’s masses would have first been heard, but The Tallis Scholars were successful in bringing their ten voices together to evoke a spatial magnificence and magnitude. It was a pity, therefore, that some felt it necessary or appropriate to applaud between the movements of the Mass.

After the interval, there was a crowd-pleaser, Allegri’s Miserere (in its ‘top C’ version) for which tenor Simon Wall climbed to the gallery above the stage to deliver the cantor’s phrases, while four singers placed in a balcony at the rear provided antiphonal interaction with the SSATB group on the platform. The timbre was quite light of weight, and the pristine tone of the soprano’s top Cs - perfectly tuned - rang beautifully, although some of the decorative flourishes felt a little rushed in descent (and some unfortunate coughing in the Hall disturbed the tranquillity so deftly sculpted by Philips).

Gesualdo’s O vos omnes and Aestimatus sum (Tenebrae Responsories for Holy Saturday) offered the composer’s customary harmonic twists and turns, and the semitone movement in the inner parts at the chordal start of O vos omnes did unsettle the intonation, but there was a wealth of colour and varied dynamic contrasts in this sombre performance, and a moving progression from darkness to light with the request ‘et videte dolorum meum’ (look upon my sorrow). The text of Aestimatus sum speaks of descending into the darkest pit and Philips gave us real drama: the running bass provided strong direction at the start, and pictorial flourishes in the final section, while a torturously curling dissonance resolved securely to suggest release, ‘inter mortuos liber’ (free among the dead).

Four of Monteverdi’s motets closed the programme. The word-painting was rendered clearly: the chromatic descent at the start of the five-part Crucifixus was sharply defined and darkly lamenting to convey Christ’s suffering and burial, while the long-held notes which open Adoramus te suggested awestruck devotion before flowering into a spirited blessing, ‘benedicimus tibi’. Monteverdi was no less ‘experimental’ than Gesualdo in his harmonic journeyings, and the major/minor sleights of hand in the latter motet were expressive and well-controlled; the final plea, ‘Miserere nobis’, had a focused sincerity. Domine, ne in furore had terrific rhetorical energy but closed with a poignant softness, ‘led tu, Domine, usquequo?’ (but, Lord, how long?).

These Monteverdi motets had been preceded by the well-known eight-part Crucifixus by Antonio Lotti (1667-1740). The rich, pungent blend of the opening seemed almost to mimic the organ which would have originally accompanied the singers, as the suspensions piled up and the inner voices wound through the dissonances.

Like Allegri, Lotti is known principally for one work, this Crucifixus (which actually forms part of a longer work, the Credo in F for choir and orchestra from the Missa Sancti Christophori). Ever keen to explore musical by-ways Philips selected another of the composer’s Crucifixuses, this time in ten parts, for his encore. I’m not a great fan of encores, especially when a programme has been thoughtfully designed, as this one clearly had: I’d have preferred to go out with the joyful repetitions of Cantate Domine ringing in my ears. ‘Cantate et exultate et psallite/ in cithara et voce psalmi’ (Sing and exult and rejoice with the lyre and the voice of psalmody) seemed to sum things up nicely.

Claire Seymour

The Tallis Scholars - Peter Phillips (director), Amy Haworth, Emma Walshe, Emily Atkinson and Charlotte Ashley (sopranos), Caroline Trevor and Helen Charlston (altos), Steven Harrold and Simon Wall (tenors), Simon Whitely and Greg Skidmore (bass).

Palestrina - Laudate pueri, Virgo prudentissima; Monteverdi - Messa a quattro voci da cappella; Allegri - Miserere; Gesualdo - O vos omnes, Aestimatus sum ; Lotti - Crucifixus (à 8); Monteverdi - Crucifixus, Adoramus te, Domine ne in furore, Cantate Domine.

Cadogan Hall, London; Friday 22nd September 2017.

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