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14 Dec 2018

Temple Winter Festival: The Tallis Scholars

Hodie Christus natus est. Today, Christ is born! A miracle: and one which has inspired many a composer to produce their own musical ‘miracle’: choral exultation which seems, like Christ himself, to be a gift to mankind, straight from the divine.

Tallis Scholars: Temple Winter Festival

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Tallis Scholars

Photo credit: Nick Rutter

 

Certainly, the double-choir motet which Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina published in his third volume of motets in Venice in 1575, and with which the Tallis Scholars directed by their founder Peter Phillips opened this Winter Festival concert at Temple Church, is inspired and inspiring. Here, the antiphonal richness of the motet, kindled by the silvery gleam of the first SSAB and the softer warmth of the complementary ATTB group, was further invigorated by the glorious acoustic of Temple Church. And, if the first consonant of ‘Hodie’ didn’t quite click simultaneously and the singers took a while to settle into the tempo, then it wasn’t long before the sound was swinging back and forth, enwrapping us from all directions as it swirled up and down the chancel, and round the circular nave, then rose rapturously to the rafters as the climbing phrases of the rejoicing angels’ song flew joyfully to the heavens.

Phillips and his singers know how to make the most of a good venue. The characteristic blended sound was seamless and silky, the voices trickling together, like the running colours on a painter’s palette, to form a shining new hue; but that’s not to suggest that individual voices don’t make expressive contributions in their own right. Occasionally one may have to look up to discern which of the four sopranos has taken a solo or dominant line, so well-matched are they for colour, depth and projection, but Amy Haworth’s astonishing reserves of power are notable, while Emily Walshe’s pure, rounded richness of tone makes its mark. Alexander Chance relishes the opportunity to mould an alto line with nuance, raising it to the fore, while tenor Stephen Harrold is ever alert, glancing to and from his musical colleagues, his phrasing more expressively nuanced than is perhaps common within the Anglican cathedral tradition, but compelling none the less. And, complemented by Simon Whiteley’s flexible, light bass, Rob Macdonald’s fine-grained refinement has the stature to anchor all together.

Tuning wasn’t spot on at the opening of the Kyrie of Palestrina’s parody Mass, but the ensemble sound had a beautiful ‘lift’, enhanced by the clarity of the diction, and the accumulating rhythmic energy swept the music forward towards the spirited triple-time closing Kyrie. The Gloria might perhaps have been more robust and exuberant, but Phillips seemed to strive for spaciousness through which the double-choir effects could swell, and the flowing phrases of the ‘Quoniam tu solus Sanctus’ were beautifully modulated and tapered.

In the expansive Credo, the contrasts between homophony and vigorous counterpoint suggested faith, and the jubilant optimism that such faith inspires, and Phillips conjured buoyancy and energy, often driven by rising figures in the inner and lower voices. There was blaze of warmth and increasing thrust for the final assertion: I believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. In contrast, after the expansive richness of the Sanctus, the ‘Hosanna in excelsis’ episode had a lovely light triple-time lilt, with robust articulation, ‘Ho-’, and swinging emphasis. After such exuberance, the Agnus Dei was consolatory.

The Gloria and the final three sections of the Mass were separated by music old and new. Nico Muhly has set an eclectic range of texts in his vocal and choral compositions: Syllables (2007) fragments an Old Icelandic account of the end of the world, while the internet provided the inspiration in 2008 for Confessions, which drew its lyrics from YouTube. The rediscovery of the bones of Richard III in a car par in Leicester initiated the words of Old Bones (2013) and The Last Letter (2015) sets letters sent between soldiers and their loved ones during the First World War. Peter Phillips explained that the text of Muhly’s Rough Music, receiving its premiere here, was determined by a change in the ensemble’s travelling plans: having been told that they had performed in every continent on the planet except Antarctica, they got ready to set off to sing to the penguins but eventually settled on commissioning a new work about the icy wastes instead.

Rough Music sets two fragments from the diary of Captain Scott, recording the closing days of his doomed Antarctic misadventure. The first part depicts the vision of an extraordinary landscape, and the spiritual mysteries of the aurora australis were captured in the semi-tonal dissonances and shimmering vibrations of Pärt-like tintinnabulations. Occasionally a gleam of light broke free, a single voice soaring; elsewhere the colours coalesced, the homophonic ensemble voices deepening in weight and depth. First a single soprano floated above the waves and washes of sound, poignantly aspiring; then, Harrold became the focal narrator, describing in delicately sculptured but shapely phrases the ‘waving curtains’ and ‘patches of brighter light’, with innocent wonder. The homophonic declamation, ‘For four days we have been unable to leave the tent’, marked a disturbing shift towards inevitable tragedy, darkly foreshadowing the crew’s deaths. Ironically, the collective utterances that ‘Englishmen can endure hardships, help one another’ only served to highlight the individual loneliness, as articulated by the expanding registral range and shifting harmonies which seemed to embody the ineffability of the polar ice itself. The final phrase, ‘These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale …’ drifted into nothingness, an unresolved soprano line dissipating into a poetic, pathetic silence.

Muhly’s music resonates with the musical idioms of the Anglican tradition - its long, extended gestures, the episodic develop of the material - the linearity being coupled with ‘minimalist’ features and neo-Romantic harmonies which enable Muhly to enrich the narrative and spiritual power of the music of English composers from Tallis to Howells, with a very human drama.

The following work, the Magnificat of the fifteenth-century composer John Nesbett - of whom little is known, other than that he worked for a time at Canterbury Cathedral - returned us to the origins of those Anglican traditions. The composer’s Magnificat is his sole representation in the Eton Choir Book: its canonic writing imbues it with an archaic sobriety, but the Tallis Scholars’ vigorous and well-delineated rhythms brought forth the music’s spiritual confidence - the declarative certainty of ‘Deposuit potentes de sede’ (He hath put down the mighty from their seats) would have uplifted the most doubting soul, as the music strove towards the gloriously resonant open intervals of the final ‘Amen’.

For Byrd’s Lullaby the forces were reduced to five, SAATB, and the tone took a darker turn. The intonation took a while to settle - Byrd’s false relations twist and wriggle uncomfortably - as the singers embedded themselves into the sparser and more sombre sound-world; but a soporific mellifluousness soon evolved. Some of the cadences have a real ‘tang’ and not all were comfortably negotiated, but perhaps that’s what Byrd intended: images of ‘shedding the blood of infants all’ overwhelm the appeal to the sleeping child to rest.

Like Byrd’s consort song, Joseph lieber, Joseph mein by Hieronymous Praetorius has embedded deep roots in the Tallis Scholars’ repertory. Here, it framed Praetorius’ Magnificat Tone V, which interleaved within the lines of sacred text a popular medieval tune, In dulci jubilo - replicating the presentation of this music in the 1622 volume which formed part of Praetorius’ collected sacred music. The carols seemed to encourage a welcome relaxation of the ensemble’s phrasing and expression, and the shifts between the triple-time carols and more four-square counterpoint of the Magnificat were exciting and energising; the slippage into a seductive three-in-a-bar in the closing Gloria Patri, et Filio was the perfect conduit to the repetition of the dulcet appeal to ‘Joseph, my dear Joseph’.

We had an encore. John Tavener’s The Lamb. It was a fittingly contemplative, comforting and compelling close to a wonderful musical preface and guide to festive rituals to come.

This concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and can be heard for 30 days on BBC iPlayer.

Claire Seymour

Temple Winter Festival 2018: The Tallis Scholars, Peter Phillips (director)

Palestrina - Hodie Christus natus est, Missa Hodie Christus natus est (Kyrie and Gloria); Muhly -Premiere; Nesbett - Magnificat; Palestrina - Missa Hodie Christus natus est (Credo, Sanctus and Agnus dei); Byrd - Lullaby; H. Praetorius: Magnificat V (with In dulci jubilo).

Temple Church, London; Thursday 13th December 2018.

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