The Tallis Scholars: Works by Guerrero, Lobo, Mouton, Victoria, Palestrina, Pärt, Taverner, and others, Chan Centre, April 21, 2018.

All photos by Jan Gates

All photos by Jan Gates

It always amazes me how one can hear the Tallis Scholars so many times, and yet each successive concert finds the same freshness and radiance of the last. One explanation may be the continuing addition of enthusiastic, talented new singers over the decades, yet a fundamental reason must surely be the unflagging inspiration of director Peter Phillips. He has carried this ensemble since its inception in 1973, consistently maintaining the highest standards of vocal unanimity and expressive balance. The Tallis Scholars first visited Vancouver in 1988, and it was interesting to see a committed army of devotees present, many of whom had likely followed the group since their debut concert. The ensemble’s current exploration of polyphony was a ‘War and Peace’ commemoration of the centenary of the end of World War I.  The music mainly drew from 16th century composers, though some contemporary contributions from Arvo Pärt and Sir John Taverner joined in. While more tangible aspects of war were exposed early on, it was more the spiritual shadings overlaying war and its aftermath that left their mark, moving ultimately to the wonderfully transcendent reaches of Tomás Luis de Victoria’s Missa pro Defunctis.


Having seen Stile Antico, Collegium Vocale Gent, and other superb vocal ensembles in recent years, it was instructive to observe how the Tallis Scholars’ combination of textual fidelity, pristine detailing and tonal certainty continues to affirm their exalted status.  It is not only the cleanness of their tonal output that impressed but also the dynamic and textural subtlety that Peter Philips is able to coax out of this ensemble of ten vocalists. He has a wonderful ability to selectively bring each of the treble and bass parts into telling relief while maintaining perfect choral balance as a whole. On this occasion, the strength and suspension of the treble line was particularly noteworthy, as was the group’s overall transparency and shaping.

Starting from two L’Homme Armé settings, the core pieces of the first half were the ‘Gloria’ and ‘Credo’ from Missa Batalla by Francisco Guerrero (1528-1599). Both are solidly constructed compositions with a good sense of dramatic building and determination. The Tallis Scholars found a compelling line through them, always making contrasts strong and clear, articulating the counterpoint pristinely, and augmenting this with fine expressive and tonal variety. Fitting in between these were three works: Arvo Pärt’s ‘The woman with the alabaster box’, Jean Mouton’s ‘Quis dabit oculis’ and my particular favourite, Alonso Lobo’s ‘Versa est in luctum’.  In the former, the haunting suspension and strange harmonic explorations of Pärt’s ‘holy minimalism’ provided a captivating contrast with the Guerrero and a true clinic on the ensemble’s dynamic control at pianissimo. The Mouton also fostered serenity and finely-hewed textures, and one had to be taken by the evenness of the ensemble’s long legato lines and their awareness of dynamic gradations. Lobo’s piece has a wonderful dramatic profile and beauty, showcasing both the wonderful plasticity of the ensemble’s treble line and the group’s sterling ability to terrace their dynamics, contrasting the most forward sonic projection at some points with a completely different and remote sound world at others. As a hybrid of this, spatial and ‘pulsating’ effects were revealed as individual voicings sequentially moved out in the texture while the others receded.


While there were certainly moments of spiritual radiance in the first half, the redeeming beauty of this concert flowed from the proceedings of the second half, starting with the wondrous ‘Requiem Aeternam’ from Tomas Luis de Victoria’s Missa pro Defunctis. This featured superb dynamic pacing and captured the transcendental reach and gravity of the music, with the female voices really outdoing themselves in their range of expression. Guerrero arrived again with a contrastingly lighter piece, and so did Sir John Taverner in his Song for Athene – the latter’s expressive sentimentality may be an acquired taste – but the highlight was the celestial reach achieved in the ‘Agnus Dei’ from Palestrina’s famous Missa Papae Marcelli and in another installment from Victoria’s mass, the ‘Libera Me’, which ended the concert. Here the singing was at its most radiant, finding consuming expressive shape and flow in the former, and a lovely nobility and strength in the latter. The ensemble’s unanimity and blend were quite disarming. Naturally, the encore simply continued on with Victoria’s great work, and I am sure many members of the audience would have wanted this experience to flow on and on for the entire afternoon. It is remarkable that The Tallis Scholars can keep this repertoire so fresh: their initial recording of Victoria’s Requiem Mass and Lobo’s ‘Versa est in luctum’ (using 12 voices) was released on Gimell as long ago as 1987.


© Geoffrey Newman 2018