The Tallis Scholars, St Paul's Cathedral | Classical music reviews, news & interviews
The Tallis Scholars, St Paul's Cathedral
A captivating start to the choir's 40th birthday tour
In November 1973 a 20-year-old music scholar from St. John’s College, Oxford conducted the first ever concert by the newly founded Tallis Scholars, in St. Mary Magdalen, Oxford. Anyone who was there might have sensed that a new era was beginning. David Munrow was still alive: the period instrument revolution was just taking off. But Peter Phillips seemed to be inaugurating a new generation of Renaissance and Polyphonic singing - an expertise on show this week at a sensational recital in St Paul’s Cathedral - such as this country had not heard before.
Except that, modestly, he would insist it had a forerunner. Once he arrived amid the dreaming spires, Phillips made a regular pilgrimage down to Magdalen College chapel: partly, to see the legendary Bernard Rose conducting the college’s all-male choir. Byrd, Tallis, Weelkes, even the fiendishly difficult Tomkins Great Service were all on the menu.
Phillips took Tallis's Spem in Alium, to my mind, unwarrantably slowly
But above all Phillips went to hear the Clerkes of Oxenforde, founded by David Wulstan, whose girls sang like boys and who could turn the treble and mien – or second soprano - lines into fabulous traceries of sound that the sublime Magdalen acoustic transformed into the ethereal. It was a life-changing experience.
That same young undergraduate is now a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, in recognition of his services to French culture. The Tallis Scholars’ new five-star recording of Jean Mouton, nominated for a BBC Music Magazine Award, is one of countless triumphs of four decades of recording on their own label.
Phillips has now embarked, in a reverberant St Paul’s, on a landmark 40th-anniversary programme. What an acoustic. The effect on the choir’s singing, as Malcolm Archer, John Scott and now Andrew Carwood have long proved, is quite sensational. Take, for example, perhaps the most staggering of the pieces Phillips offered to a packed and aghast cathedral audience: a short and almost never heard Miserere by Tallis.
The wonderful way the choir shaped these unbroken legato lines (as later in Byrd’s Tribue, Domine) produced music one would gladly hear at one’s graveside. The pacing, growth and fall, alternation of full harmony and monody, and strangely tolling, rising scalic passages in this Miserere were out of this world.
Not all was perfect. The choir took a time to get into its stride – the opening Tallis (Loquebantur variis linguis) exhibited little of give and, let alone of the variety that text surely cries out for. Words, in that other wonderful Miserere, Allegri’s, were often inaudible even when you followed the Latin, though the soprano was delicious (in the descending as well as ascending sequence); and the tenor solo quite fabulous. Phillips’ beat, with an odd caress of the left hand thrown in, looks almost as beautifully irrelevant as George Guest’s swirlings used to look.
But somehow it didn’t matter. The choir mostly grasped what he meant, or at least, the meticulously rehearsed machinery worked by some wonderful osmosis or autopilot.
Listening to Arvo Pärt’s breathtakingly beautiful, at times susurrating Nunc Dimittis, one realised that Phillips has not stood still. Once almost too purified, so that, while wildly beautiful, it could sound (oxymoronically) like crystalline succulence, the Tallis Scholars’ sound – with a partly new team of singers – has modified. It has less prissiness, perhaps more body or fibre, yet the pianissimi are just as mesmerising.
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