Tallis Scholars: Puer natus est nobis

Puer natus est nobis: Tallis/Pärt/Sheppard
The Tallis Scholars
The St John’s, Smith Sq. 19 December 2015

Tallis: Missa Puer natus est nobis; Arvo Pärt: Sieben Magnificat Antiphonen, Magnificat, I am the true vine; Sheppard: Sacris solemniis, Gaude, gaude, gaude.

WP_20151219_20_17_59_Pro.jpgAfter a short tour in The Netherlands, the Tallis Scholars brought their programme of music by Thomas Tallis, Arvo Pärt and John Sheppard to St John’s, Smith Square as part of the SJSS 30th annual Christmas festival. Tallis’s Missa Puer natus est nobis (based on the introit for the Mass of Christmas Day) were threaded through the programme, but it opened with Arvo Pärt’s 1988 Sieben Magnificat Antiphonen and 1989 Magnificat in recognition of Pärt’s 80th anniversary.

The seven ‘O’ antiphons reflect the various prophesies of Isaiah that were later interpreted by Christians as predicting Christ’s virtues. Pärt’s seven miniatures (printed in the wrong order in the programme) are tiny essays in Arvo Pärt’s distinctive and often sparse style. The opening O Weisheit adds a twist to the major triads by presenting them in the first inversion, giving a slightly unsettled sense of tonality. O Adonai uses the lower voices and a bass drone and is contrasted by the following O Sproß aus Isais Wurzel, again with a drone, but now using high voices. Reflecting the words ‘delay no longer’ at the end, it segues into the powerful ff opening of O Schlüssel Davids the mood, and volume, subsiding towards the unresolved cadence. O Morgenstern has a sense of unsettled tonality between major and minor, and also uses Pärt’s characteristic dramatic pauses. O König aller Völker has the voices circling around a static repeated alto note while the concluding O Immanuel has the lower voices spiralling upwards to meet the high sopranos, which themselves climb ever higher.

Singers hovering around a single high soprano note were also a feature of Pärt’s Magnificat, also written in his trademark tintinnabuli style. Alternating between passages for two/three voices and chorus in the manner of early Renaissance polyphony, the piece is generally meditative, although there are two powerful climaxes at Et misericordia and Suscepit Isreal. As with the Antiphons, the ability of the ten singers of The Tallis Scholars to keep perfect intonation was key to the musical success of this performance.  Later in the programme we heard Pärt’s hypnotic I am the true vine, a piece whose mathematical complexity is worn lightly, the overall feeling being one of words being tossed about between the voices around a central extended bass drone.

WP_20151219_20_16_52_Pro.jpgA move away from the Christmas story came with Sheppard’s Sacris solemniis, a piece intended for Corpus Christi and representing the Eucharist. Is it in alternatim style, with chanted verses interspersed with polyphony based on the slightly deconstructed chant in the treble voice. The frequent false relations and high treble lines make this a distinctly English piece, with Sheppard managing to out-scrunch Tallis, particularly towards the end of the Panis angelicus verse. We also heard Sheppard’s Gaude, gaude, gaude, a Marian responsory written for the feast of the Presentation and again featuring a high treble line. Addressed to, rather than about, the Virgin Mary, this six-part piece revolves around a tenor chant. After a lengthy solo chanted section in the middle (sung by Christopher Watson), the piece concludes with a series of short sections of alternatim, but with the tenor chant sung to the single syllable ‘Ah’ rather than any specific text. In several of the chorus sections, the two alto lines drop out, but a second, solo, soprano soars above the other singers in the style known as a Gimel. A fascinating structure.

Tallis’s (incomplete) Missa Puer natus est nobis was clearly written for something of an occasion, probibly connected to the 1554 assumed (but actually, false) pregnancy of Queen Mary following her marriage to the Spanish Hapsburg heir, Philip. The scoring is unusual for Tallis, and for English composers of the time, in being set at low pitch, perhaps to accommodate the presence in England of Philip’s chapel royal, the Capilla Flamenca. Something of a one-off in Tallis compositional style, it combines traditional English with more continental influences. The harmonic structure is relatively slow moving, the interweaving parts giving a sense of continual internal movement. Despite the apparently joyous nature of the piece, the Sanctus is reflective, although the Hosanna concludes like a peal of bells with the repeating word excelsis. The Puer natus chant is heard in the tenor voice, with an extraordinarily extended single note stretch in the Agnus Dei, a sequence in which the tight imitative vocal lines and the even slower harmonic pulse gives a sense of stasis that was only partly spoilt by that person in the audience who so often feels the need to start applauding just before the last notes stop sounding, despite the obvious signs that the conductor hasn’t finished conducting the concluding silence.

the tallis scholars early music vocal ensemble peter phillipsI have written before that The Tallis Scholars seem to be getting better and better, despite having been going for some 42 years. I was particularly impressed with the four sopranos, Amy Haworth, Emma Walsh, Molly Alexander and Gwendolen Martin whose collective solo and consort contributions were flawless despite some tricky high vocal lines. All the singers deserve praise for outstanding consort singing, their clean vibrato-free voices perfectly blending with each other, with no one voice dominating. Peter Phillips gave his usual jovial sales pitch for CDs and his book, something I suggest subtracts rather than adds to the mood of the proceedings.

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