Tallis Scholars bring polish and purity to Renaissance Christmas program

Mon Dec 10, 2018 at 11:45 am

By John Y. Lawrence

The Tallis Scholars performed at Rockefeller Chapel on Sunday. Photo: Nick Rutter

Early music fans got an early gift of the Christmas season on Sunday afternoon when The Tallis Scholars came to Hyde Park. As part of the University of Chicago Presents’ Howard Mayer Brown International Early Music Series, the storied vocal ensemble presented a program titled “A Renaissance Christmas” at Rockefeller Chapel.

The Tallis Scholars and conductor Peter Phillips, who founded the group in 1973, are often hailed as the preeminent interpreters of Palestrina. Thus, it was little surprise to find that composer at the center of the program, represented by his motet “Hodie Christus natus est” and his mass of the same name based on that motet.

Strewn among the Palestrina movements were two selections by William Byrd and two by the little-known composers John Nesbett and Hieronymus Praetorius. (Digging up lost treasures is something of a specialty for The Tallis Scholars.)

The Tallis Scholars tend to sing four- or five-part music, which allows them to assign two singers to each part. But much of the music on Sunday’s program was written for eight or more parts. What this means is that during the concert, the ensemble frequently functioned not as a choir but as a collection of soloists.

Given this fact, the sheer technical achievement on display was staggering: supernaturally pristine intonation from all ten singers and taut ensemble coordination from Phillips, even in the most complex of textures.

It is not only The Tallis Scholars’ textures that are transparent, but also their interpretive style. They are very much of the “let the music speak for itself” school of interpretation.

This style has its benefits. The first half of the concert ended with John Nesbett’s Magnificat, a piece in which fragments of chant alternate with patches of rhythmically intricate polyphonic latticework. Only a touch as light as The Tallis Scholars’ could have kept such polyphony so crisp.

At another point in the concert, they pared down the ensemble to five singers to perform a lullaby by William Byrd. Their understated approach perfectly matched the tender simplicity of the music.

But such purity can have its drawbacks too. With the exception of the word “scattered” in the Magnificat from Byrd’s Great Service, individual words or rhythms popped less frequently. Everything flowed smoothly yet greater bite and definition would have served the music better still.

To close the concert, The Tallis Scholars interwove one of Hieronymus Praetorius’s settings of the Magnificat with some of his settings of vernacular carols—a clever idea that hearkens back to a German Baroque Christmas tradition. This was an opportunity to bring out the contrasts between the two musical styles, but instead they played both completely straight.

When they allowed themselves greater latitude, the results were splendid. They sung two movements of the Palestrina mass in the first half of the concert, and the remainder in the second half. The performance of those first two movements was characteristically serene. But when it came time to open the second half with the “Credo,” they sang with much greater vigor and a wider dynamic range and kept this up for the rest of the mass. It was a welcome surge of warmth underneath the cool polish of the Tallis Scholars sound.

The University of Chicago Presents continues with the Trio Céleste playing music of Rachmaninoff, Jalbert, and Tchaikovsky January 11, 2019. chicagopresents.uchicago.edu; 773-702-2787.

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