The Tallis Scholars showed off their superb musicianship on Tuesday evening (April 4) at St. Mary’s Cathedral, singing a concert of early polyphonic gems and newer works similarly inspired. Consisting of an ensemble of ten singers conducted by Peter Phillips, The Tallis Scholars produced an astonishing clarity of sound with excellent diction, pinpoint pitch control, outstanding dynamic range, no vibrato, and a warmth of resonance and color. The group’s sound was astounding to experience.
As far as I can figure out, Phillips has used his uncanny ears to assemble singers with matching tonal qualities. He has four sopranos whose voices are so equal that in polychoral formations – and in the resonant acoustic of St. Mary’s, it was very difficult to figure out who is singing what. The same goes for the pair of altos (one woman and one countertenor), two tenors, and two basses. In pieces that had an exposed line for one voice, say a tenor, that singer could finish a phrase and the other tenor simply picked it with a match tone. Even in recitatives involving two singers, such in the first piece of the evening, the “Magnificat IV” of Hieronymus Praetorius, the two basses sang the text as if they were one person.
So with its perfectly matched voices, the ensemble sang each piece in the program impeccably with the only fault being that the sopranos were too loud in the “Magnificat” of Orland Gibbons. But from that point onward, the group’s sound was balanced with no sagging in tone or pace. Each entry was pristine and the final notes of each piece were never overdrawn – that is, extended for effect.
The program feature various settings of the ”Magnificat” (also known as the “Song of Mary”), the “Pater Noster” (“Lord’s Prayer”), the “Ave Maria” (“Hail Mary”), and the “Nunc Dimittis” (“Song of Simeon”) with a segue to Johannes Eccard's “Maria wallt zum Heiligtum” (“Mary made a pilgrimage to the temple”) as a setup for the “Nunc Dimittis.”
Most impressive in these sets were three pieces by Arvo Pãrt. His “Magnificat,” “Ave Maria,” and “Nunc Dimittis” had unusual harmonics and dissonances that added depth to the text. Some notes in his “Nunc Dimittis” were so ear-bendingly close together that they were almost disturbing. Yet, it would have been fantastic to hear each of those pieces a second time.
Sung in Savonic, Igor Stravinsky’s “Our Father” (“Pater Noster”) seemed to harken to a Russian liturgical style and was quite lovely. His “Ave Maria” was unfortunately very short. John Tavener’s “Our Father” had a thicket of gently flowing lines for the inner voices that were wonderfully set against long, static phrases for the outer voices. John Sheppard’s “Our Father” had a multi-channeled sounded, and the version by Jacobus Gallus ended with an intricate and gorgeous Amen
The “Ave Maria” of Jean Mouton had a mellow and somber effect while the “Nunc dimittis” of Andres de Torrentes soared with beautiful high notes from the sopranos. Gustav Holst’s “Nunc dimittis” rounded out the program joyously, causing the audience to erupt with applause. The ensemble responded with lilting encore of Claudio Monteverdi’s “Cantate Domino.”
Another unique ability of the Tallis Scholars singers is their uncanny ability to read the idiosyncratic conducting of Peter Phillips. He uses a lot of very small and contained gestures that seem tricky to decipher. Yet his singers understand him perfectly and are able to deliver a sound that is positively stunning.