Tallis Scholars bring a seasonal Marian celebration to Rockefeller Chapel

Sat Dec 10, 2011 at 3:07 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Peter Phillips led the Tallis Scholars in a program of seasonal Renaissance music Friday night at Rockefeller Chapel.

A bit of live concert serendipity intruded on the Tallis Scholars concert Friday night at Rockefeller Chapel when screaming police sirens en route to a crime scene forced director Peter Phillips to stop his singers after the first bar of a setting of Nunc dimittis (“Lord, now let thy servant depart in peace.”).

Happily, there were no other interruptions and the venerable early music ensemble continued with its discerning and tasteful program of seasonal sacred music. The event was presented by the University of Chicago Concert series and played to a surprisingly full house in the vast space.

Founded by Phillips in 1973, the Tallis Scholars quickly found acclaim for their pure-toned, historically scrupulous and pioneering performances of a wide array of Renaissance sacred music.

The genial Phillips has remained as director and guiding light while the ensemble has seen inevitable personnel turnover over the last four decades. If not quite as evenly blended and tonally glowing as at its peak, under Phillips’ direction the Tallis Scholars’ current roster of ten singers brought stylish and historically informed vocalism to a wide range of Christmas settings.

No Frosty the Snowman here. The Tallis Scholars rigorous program was built on texts centered on the Virgin Mary with a variety of Magnificat settings taking pride of place.

Sweelinck’s Hodie Christus Natus est made a fine curtain-raiser the rhapsodic vocal lines conveying the joy of the text. The singers brought out the gaunt melismatic lines of John Taverner’s sprawling Magnificat a 5, Philips pacing the extended work with great skill.

At times a certain unvaried interpretive stance predominated and one would one would have liked the different composers’ styles more clearly delineated. So too, while Arvo Part’s neo-monastic style fit well with the older works, the widely terraced contrasts of his Magnificat could have used more pointed dynamic extremes.

But for the most part the Tallis Scholars were superb advocates for their music with informed and refined singing, the sopranos in particular excelling in their oft-stratospheric challenges.

Robert White (1538-1574) is an early English composer who shows up on stateside program too infrequently and it was nice to have him represented with two works. White’s Song of Songs setting, Tota pulchra es, is a gorgeous work, affecting in its richly layered six-part polyphony.

Other highlights included Praetorius’s Magnificat IV, the Scholars conveying the chromatic starkness and folk-like swing, the antiphonal writing of Britten’s Hymn to the Virgin and the madrigal-like freedom of Palestrina’s Nunc dimittis.

The single encore marked a little-noted musical anniversary with a lovely setting by German composer Johannes Eccard who died in 1611.

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