Temple Winter Festival: The Tallis Scholars

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 P‰rt-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

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.

product_title=Tallis Scholars: Temple Winter Festival
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Tallis Scholars

Photo credit: Nick Rutter