Choral at Cadogan: The Tallis Scholars open a new season

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

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

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

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 (‡ 8); Monteverdi – Crucifixus, Adoramus te, Domine ne in furore, Cantate Domine.

Cadogan Hall, London; Friday 22nd September 2017.

image_description=Choral at Cadogan: The Tallis Scholars directed by Peter Philips
product_title=Choral at Cadogan: The Tallis Scholars directed by Peter Philips
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: The Tallis Scholars with Peter Philips (centre)

Photo credit: Nick Rutter