BBC Prom 73: Tallis Scholars

Before the Ending of the Day
Tallis Scholars, Peter Phillips
Royal Albert Hall, 6 September 2018

The late-night concert on 6 September, following the Britten War Requiem, was a quasi-liturgical performance of the service of Compline, the concluding service of the daily eight canonical hours in Catholic liturgy. After the concluding litany of the War Requiem: “Let us sleep now” it was an appropriate add-on. Traditionally followed in monastic settings by the ‘Great Silence’ that lasted until the first service of the morning, its roots go back to St Benedict at the beginning of the sixth century. The name of the service comes from the word ‘complete’ reflecting the completion of the working day – or, in this case, for most of us, the end of a musical day. 

It was a slightly curious affair, with music covering 850 years ranging geographically from Germany, Mexico, Slovenia, Italy, Estonia and England. Seven choral pieces were interspersed with lengthy passages of plainchant, with Psalms and their Antiphons, Responsory and Versicle, a ninefold Kyrie, Prayers and the Dismissal. With the hall in darkness, it was impossible to follow the text or to know what was coming next, making it a rather tough listen. It was billed as ‘An introduction to Compline’, but I wonder how many converts it managed to gather.

The Tallis Scholars were divided into two groups, an 18-strong choir on the main stage and a smaller group of eight female singers standing either side of the organ console behind and above the stage. The whole thing opened with a rather pretentious procession, the singing starting in the stalls corridor, before they walked slowly down the south aisle, cutting a swath through the Arena Prommers and onto the stage. They were led by Patrick Craig, conducting above his head the first beat of each phrase of In principio omnes, the final section of Hildegard of Bingen’s c1151 morality play Ordo virtutumThe soaring melodic chant was sung by a female chorus, the men behind providing a drone bass. Possibly intended for the dedication of Hildegard’s Rupertsberg monastery, there is some evidence that it was originally intended to have include costumes and dance, but we were spared that.

Hildegard segued into the Mexican composer Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla’s Deus, in adiutorium, composed sometime after 1622, the Spanish influenced rhythms being immediately noticeable. The focus then switched to the small choir by the organ for the first part of the chanted liturgy, the chants rocking back and forth from left to right. The Lord’s Prayer was in the version by Jacobus Gallus (aka Jacob Handl), a 16th-century composer from Slovenia. The choir divides into upper and lower voices, possibly representing a dialogue between heaven and earth. The extended Amen was particularly impressive.

The small female chant choir then sang a lengthy sequence of very repetitive chant with two Psalms, with similar barely melodic lines sung alternatively from left and right sides. Curiously, given how simple this music must have been for professional singers, the entire thing was conducted, in a rather flamboyant style, by Patrick Craig, standing between the two groups by the organ bench. Unfortunately, a spotlight cast his shadow onto the organ console doors, making his rather ungainly movements all the more prominent. For many decades, Craig sang countertenor with the Tallis Scholars, and now seems to be taking on an assistant directorial role. While on the subject of conducting style, Peter Phillips (the Tallis Scholars’ director) seems to have adopted a far clearer, less jerky style, with the beat far easier to ascertain as has usually been the case in the past.


Curiously, given the usually impeccable historically-informed approach of the Tallis Scholars, they chose to sing Allegri’s 1638 Miserere in the better-known, but unreliable, 19th-century version with its distinctive, but incorrect, soprano high-Cs, here sung from somewhere in the Gods, without the ornaments that would almost certainly have been included originally. Their one amendment to this version (which only became the standard version in the 1930s) was to use a more appropriate chant.

A mercifully brief chanted Antiphon introduced Tallis’s lovely 1575 Compline hymn Te lucis ant terminum. The three verses were sung in alternatim between the upper female plainchant choir with the main choir for the central polyphonic verse. Two of the most interesting pieces concluded the evening, introduced and separated by more chant. Arvo Pärt’s 2001 Nunc dimittis unfolded slowly and gently before a tightly harmonic section climaxing in the word Lumen. The Gloria including passages that reflected the medieval hocketing style.

The final piece followed the tradition of finishing a Compline service with an extended Marian Antiphon. Of the several examples in the Eton Choirbook, John Browne’s extraordinary 8-part O Maria salvatoris mater was chosen – one of the longest an most complex examples of the genre, and presumably intended for a major feast day. Lasting around 15 minutes, it was a musical tour de force performed exquisitely by The Tallis Scholars. In Alexandra Coghlan’s excellent programme notes she described the piece as “overwhelming, conceived on a scale that demands awe rather than understanding”. The sopranos were particularly effective, here and earlier, holding onto several very high notes with absolute purity of tone and pitch. Peter Phillips direction was well-judged, with a restrained use of volume changes, allowing the changing musical texture to provide variety, and saving power for a few special moments.

You can hear the concert for the next couple of weeks or so on BBC iPlayer here.