Passiontide at Merton - The Tallis Scholars sing Victoria
18 April 2011The Telegraph
The current vogue for “spiritual” music has produced some unlikely best-sellers: a trio of priests, white-clad French nuns, a Requiem by ex jazz-rocker Karl Jenkins. Will it do the same for Tomas Luis de Victoria, the Spanish Renaissance composer whose 400th anniversary falls this year?
It would be nice to think so, because as this perfectly focused concert reminded us Victoria was one of the masters of his era, or any era. And yet how hard it is to put one’s finger on what makes him great. He’s not extravagantly expressive, like his great contemporary Lassus, he doesn’t dazzle with contrapuntal cleverness like Josquin. To say that Victoria makes a virtue out of restraint sounds worthy, but to experience it is thrilling. When he makes a repeated melodic phrase curve upwards to the same high point, and then the third time round takes it one note higher, the effect can be more intense than any triple fortissimo in a Mahler symphony.
To reveal that power needs a particular kind of performance, where drama is an occasional tremor on the surface of something essentially calm and radiant. Which is exactly what the Tallis Scholars gave us. There were only ten singers — fewer than some of the Scholars’ well-known rivals — but they produce an ideal sound, solid and rounded but not luxurious. They performed two pieces appropriate to the Easter season, beginning with the Lamentations of Jeremiah. Each time the suffering city of Jerusalem was implored to “turn to the Lord”, it needed only the tiniest pulling back of the tempo to infuse something heartfelt into the austere sound.
This way Phillips has of conjuring intensity is fascinating, because it seems to rise out of the music itself as an inner glow. You register the effect of rising emotional heat, but not its cause.
This was evident, too, in the next piece, Victoria’s setting of the Requiem. Alongside this “invisible” expressivity were moments of real drama. In the Offertorium the tenors’ downward plunge pushed through the sound, giving an edge to the prayer to “deliver us from the jaws of hell”. And later, what a strange harsh sound the choir gave to the word “ira”, referring to the Day of Wrath, and how the modest increase of pace had an almost panic-stricken effect. All tiny things, but in the context they were like a revelation.
* The Tallis Scholars sing Victoria at the late-night Prom on August 4.
See the full review in The Telegraph.