★★★★½ Renaissance masters make sublime and welcome return to Oz.

City Recital Hall, Angel Place, Sydney
November 5, 2016

Last time the Tallis Scholars came to town, a last minute change of venue to St. Mary’s Cathedral bathed us in beauty of tone but deprived us of the pleasure of aurally unravelling those intricate polyphonic textures. No fear of that this time. The perfect acoustics of City Recital Hall couldn’t have suited the legendary purity of this extraordinary vocal ensemble better. With nowhere to bury a misplaced consonant or mask an intonational glitch, only a world class choir such as this could have offered not one but two concerts of flawless singing in the space of just five hours.

It’s fascinating to compare the Scholars with another great British choir who visited these shores in recent years, The Sixteen. Harry Christophers seems to consider each work an act of worship, digging deep into word and message. Peter Phillips tends to favour line over text, each of his ten, true voices clear and free of any trace of grit or wobble. Where The Sixteen lunge at the words, wrapping themselves in the earthly drama, the Tallis Scholars sway and float with the musical lines in their quest for the empyrean. That isn’t a criticism, both are equally valid approaches, but it’s a good example of the range of pleasures on offer in this eternally stimulating music.

Both of the Sydney programmes were firmly rooted in the English Renaissance. Opening with William Byrd, Laudibus in Sanctis was a perfect example of the art of the father of English music, joyous, sprightly, the musical word-painting brought out with delightful felicity. Byrd’s ideal combination of textbook clarity and musical complexity was nowhere better demonstrated than in his Tribue Domine, the work that closed the second concert. Meanwhile, a trio of Orlando Gibbons anthems were dazzling in their revealed contrapuntal clarity. There may not have been many smiles as they sang “God has gone up with a merry noise”, but the reiterated calls to “sing praises” in O Clap Your Hands was like watching a brace of golden censors swinging in the vaulted roof of some Gothic cathedral.

As a conductor, Phillips is skilled in seeing the close of a work from its outset, steering his ship home over seemingly endless seas. Nowhere was this better demonstrated than in Purcell’s penetrating Hear My Prayer paired with his Remember Not, Lord, Our Offences, both deeply moving. Equally affecting were the sets of Lamentations that were at the core of the second programme. The richness of sound sustained over the vast arcing verses of Thomas Tallis’s masterpiece was profound. In contrast, Dominique Phinot’s setting of the same text was less contrapuntally dense, more obviously catchy, Phillips relishing its repeated phrases passed from one side of his divided choir to the other. This critic’s favourite though was the sophisticated post-Reformation polyphony of late Tallis as demonstrated in Suscipe Quaeso from the great Cantiones Sacrae of 1575. The impressive effortlessness of the voices here created a compelling web of ever shifting sound.

This choir will probably always be associated with Allegri’s Miserere, the 1638 Papal Choir’s greatest hit and, as the star turn on the Scholars’ seminal 1980 album, theirs as well. Nowadays it has become fashionable to omit the famous top Cs as a 19th-century excrescence. Philips prefers to take a different line, increasingly embellishing his heavenly quartet with dazzling decorations. It’s a neat solution and worked a treat, his confidant solo soprano ideally radiant and secure.

Amongst the more famous offerings, their was plenty of room for rarities and discoveries. Clemens Non Papa’s Ego Flos Campi is his most popular work and a serene gem. Peter Philips’ (the Elizabethan composer, not the conductor) Cecilia Virgo, with it rippling eight-part interwoven lines is a magnificent piece as well. I didn’t quite see the magic in Thomas Crequillon’s Andreas Christi Famulus, but first hearings can be deceptive.

One critic on this Australian tour took a swipe at the choir’s addition of contemporary music to their programmes, snidely referring to it as “box-ticking”. Not a bit. Performing works by today’s composers shows that a choir is part of a living, breathing tradition, and each of the modern pieces on display here were fully worthy of inclusion. From the forensic dissection laying bare the teeth-rattling clashing harmonies of Nico Muhly’s Lamentations to the blissful simplicity of Tavener’s The Lamb (another early Tallis Scholars’ hit), Phillips proved an adept master of the modern.

The two standouts here were the razor-sharp precision of Arvo Pärt’s perverse yet cunningly compelling genealogical list, Which Was The Son Of… and, even more remarkable, John Rutter’s Hymn to the Creator of Light. The latter, commemorating the great Herbert Howells, is a miniature masterpiece, its stately progress flecked with angelic descants courtesy of Phillips’ ethereal sopranos. No one does tonal dissonance quite like the Tallis Scholars, and here we were in genuine goosebump territory.

According to their conductor, the choir apparently hope to sing in Antarctica sometime soon. Should they need help with programming, any of the Tallis, Purcell, Pärt or Rutter on display here can be recommended to complement the atmospheric chills with the Talllis Scholars’ special musical equivalents.

The Tallis Scholars play Melbourne on Nov 6 and Perth on Nov 8

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