Frank, Linnea, Richard, and I heard The Tallis Scholars at St. Mary the Virgin on 12/14/19. They’re an extraordinary English choral group conducted by Peter Phillips that I’ve heard a few times - - Frank, bless his heart, always circles the wagons when they come to town and he jumps on those tickets like a duck on a june bug.
I use the term “choir” some reservation, since there were only ten people in the group. Maybe I should call them a “vocal ensemble”?
It was a stunning concert, a masterpiece of programming (I’ve listed the full program below) and performed sublimely. The opening chant was done by a solo tenor with a quintessentially English sound: sweet, full of ping, and slightly reedy. His singing was somewhat reserved for most of the chant, but then ravishingly beautiful at the close.
The Padilla was nimble and colorful, with some surprising harmonic shifts. They sang the Poulenc with perfect Poulenc style: sensuous but also slightly chilly. Maybe you could do no better than a great English group doing Poulenc. Hearing them do the “Salve Regina” had me looking forward to the other Poulenc piece and the Messaien piece later in the program.
There was nothing chilly about the Cornysh, it was very dramatic. The florid writing (all those fast, little notes) was done elegantly, with no fol-de-rol, impressive in its apparent lack of effort. The high soprano featured in this piece had a delightful ease at the top - - I saw her smiling at the audience on a few high notes, as if to say, “Yeah, pretty good, right?”
The “Ave Maria” chant was done by a solo bass, who had a charming, resonant, slightly tubby sound. Not in a bad way! The Cornysh was done by four men: the male alto (the other alto in the group is a female, and they made a tasty blend when they sang together), the tenor who had sung the opening chant, and the two basses. More florid lines handled expertly, and every unexpected harmonic shift was perfectly calibrated.
The Poulenc “Ave Maria” was an arrangement of an excerpt from his opera *Dialogues of the Carmelites.* There was a moment in the piece that was so startling in its beauty that it literally took my breath away. That happens only about every four or five years.
I first heard the Allegri in the movie *Maurice,* and fell in love with it through the soundtrack recording, which I had on tape back in the 80s. This was only the second time I’d heard it live (the previous performance was by Voices of Ascension). Phillips placed the three components of the piece in different locations: the primary quintet was in the front, the chant-singing tenor on a higher level, behind them, and the solo quartet in a hidden area behind all of them, behind the altar. Many of the members of the audience craned their heads around to find the invisible singers. That was cute.
The solo soprano, the same one who was smiling earlier, was shockingly beautiful in her high C every time, and I believe it happens in all four verses in the piece. She added some tasteful ornaments in the later verses, that made me smile. The four of them got a big hand when they came out for their bow. Here's a performance by Tenebrae - - the high C happens at 1:28:
The Croce was tasty, sort of a garden variety early music piece, but they made it sound like something special.
The Tallis had wonderful sweep, a great sense of forward motion. It was a lovely little slice of heaven. The Messaien was extraordinary, so gorgeous, so effortless. The unusual harmonies were clearly delineated, and the ensemble had a perfect blend and balance at every dynamic level, even at the most quiet.
The Byrd was lovely, straightforward, unfussy. The Victoria had delightful interplay between the sets of voices, with an exciting drive in one section.
“Salve Regina” chant (anonymous)
“Salve Regina” (Juan Gutierrez de Padilla)
“Salve Regina” (Francis Poulenc)
“Salve Regina” (William Cornysh)
“Ave Maria” chant (anonymous)
“Ave Maria” (Cornysh)
“Ave Maria” (Poulenc, arranged by Jeremy White)
“Miserere” (Gregorio Allegri)
“Miserere” (Giovanni Croce)
“O sacrum convivium” (Thomas Tallis)
“O sacrum convivium” (Olivier Messaien)
Short Magnificat (William Byrd)
Magnificat for double choir (Tomas Luis de Victoria)