For information on future concerts please visit The Tallis Scholars website.
One of the most important services St. Louis Cathedral Concerts provides in its role as a presenter is to bring distinguished foreign choirs to sing in the spacious acoustic of the Cathedral Basilica. On Sunday night, that meant the best of the best: Britain’s Tallis Scholars.
They and founder-director Peter Phillips last visited St. Louis exactly a decade ago; this, the second stop on an 11-concert North American tour, was a welcome return. The small group of singers sounded fresh and clear-voiced throughout.
The program, “Metamorphosis,” was intelligently arranged, with four groups of liturgical texts in varying settings, from chant through the Renaissance to the contemporary.
The evening began with three Magnificats, Mary’s hymn from the Gospel of Luke. The first, in Latin and composed by Hieronymus Praetorius (1560-1629), set the tone for what was to follow from the choir: flawless musicianship, timing and blend.
Next came a straightforward, beautifully phrased English version by Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625); then it was back to Latin for the soaring lines and bell-like tintinnabuli of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt (b. 1935).
The next group consisted of five settings of the Lord’s Prayer, in English, Latin and Old Church Slavonic. First came the exquisite five-part English setting by John Sheppard (1515-1558), composed during the brief reign of Edward VI. It was followed by a deceptively simple version by John Tavener (1944-2013).
The Russian Orthodox tradition was introduced with the brief “Otche nash” by Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), a piece devoid of flash. Two very different Latin settings from the Renaissance concluded the first half: a sumptuous double-choir version by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-1594) and a glorious take on the text by Jacobus Gallus (1550-1591).
The second half began with four settings of “Ave Maria,” the angel Gabriel’s greeting to Mary: a Latin chant; a five-part version with an embellished text by French composer Jean Mouton (1459-1522); and two in Russian, a simple one by Stravinsky and more tintinnabulation from Pärt.
The final group used the Nunc dimittis, with five settings of the words of the ancient Simeon. First came a short but highly effective one by Gibbons. A lovely paraphrase of the text by Johannes Eccard (1533-1611) gave indications of the composer’s later influence on Brahms. One by Pärt provided an excellent example of his brand of mystical minimalism, and was a highlight of the program.
The setting by Spanish composer Andrés de Torrentes (1520-1580) alternated chant and polyphony and showed off the choir’s superb sopranos and basses. The official program concluded with an impressive version by Gustav Holst (1874-1934) for double choir, a fitting way to close.
Phillips and his choir may be the best at this repertoire in the world, giving a practically flawless performance; every singer — and every choir director — in town should have been there. Let’s hope it doesn’t take another decade to get them back to St. Louis.
Sarah Bryan Miller
This time of year, choral concerts crowd the classical scene like cars in a mall parking lot, and are about as distinct. But in a sea of Messiahs and all-you-can-eat international carol buffets, the Tallis Scholars provide shelter from the schmaltz: an oasis of stillness and crystalline light.
Presented Monday by the Ottawa Chamber Music Society, the choir performed a time-travelling program that flicked from the present day to the Tudor era and back again. The works shared a reverent, sublimely spiritual bent, and whispered rather than shouted the seasonal theme. Call it the un-Christmas concert.
The ensemble is on an international tour to promote a new recording of works by the Estonian mystic and minimalist Arvo Pärt. Opening with his Seven Magnificat Antiphons, the 10 singers immediately established why the Tallis Scholars has been arguably the world's premiere chamber choir for more than 40 years.
Although singers have come and gone in that time, founder Peter Phillips' insistence on immaculate intonation, limpid colour, and almost miraculous blend has resulted in remarkable consistency. And since most of the members come from the same Anglo-Saxon cathedral chorister tradition, they are like the vocal equivalent of a Russian corps de ballet. Phillips conducts with tiny, almost imperceptible movements, a testament to the complete trust he has in his singers.
The choir brought delicate, blown-glass definition and clarity to Pärt's Magnificat and his serene motet I am the True Vine, both composed in his trademark tintinnabuli style - literally, "ringing of bells." The Scholars gave the contemporary compositions timeless nobility, while making the music of the 16th century feel utterly fresh, modern and alive.
Thomas Tallis, the choir's namesake, worked for four turbulent monarchs; that he survived to ripe old age was due as much to his tact as to his genius. The singers performed excerpts from Tallis' Christmas Mass (Puer natus est nobis), executing the long, implacably horizontal lines with all the pulse and flow of a painter's hand.
Two works by Tallis' contemporary John Sheppard showed off the singers' brilliant virtuosity. Sacris solemnis and Gaude, gaude, gaude are both written in unusually high keys for the period, and are thickly studded with thorny false relations - those startling, fleeting dissonances that give Tudor music its bite. Under Phillips' direction, the textures took on the opulent sheen of damask.
Responding to the enthusiastic applause of the sold-out audience, the choir performed an exuberant encore by the Mexican Baroque composer Juan Gutierrez de Padilla.
Read the full review on the Ottawa Citizen website.
Ottawa Citizen, 8 December 2015
Subtlety may not be the word that springs to mind when you think of Christmas concerts. But if you listened cold to the Tallis Scholars' captivating program at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin on Saturday evening, unaware of the title, "Christmas Across Centuries," you might have missed the theme.
Unless, that is, you are intimately familiar with the chant "Puer Natus Est Nobis" ("Unto Us a Boy Is Born") and the ways in which Thomas Tallis insinuated it into his "Missa Puer Natus Est Nobis" of 1554. For the concert, which also included works of Tallis's contemporary John Sheppard and our contemporary Arvo Pärt, was assembled around movements of that Mass setting.
The subtlety was built into the music, too, in each case a sublime mix of simplicity and complexity, and also carried into the performances, led by Peter Phillips. Perhaps the quality Mr. Pärt most shares with those ancients is imperturbability, in music that hovers above the text in its own world of sound and contemplation.
Bach, for example, in his great Magnificat, showed what rich opportunities the words present for tone painting: strong downward thrusts for "deposuit," deposed the mighty; gentle lifts for "exaltavit," exalted the humble. Mr. Pärt, in his Magnificat here, like his 16th-century counterparts, couldn't be bothered with such mundane detail in his meditative state.
In his Seven Antiphons and elsewhere, he uses dissonance sparingly but effectively, sometimes sustaining it at length. His forerunners used it too - Sheppard, in his "Sacris Solemniis" and "Gaude, Gaude, Gaude" offered some particularly pungent junctures - but covered it over quickly in good 16th-century style.
The main interest in Tallis and Sheppard generally lies in the middle, in the thick of the contrapuntal play. In Mr. Pärt's music it often lies at the top and bottom of a spaced-out texture, a contrast that showed tellingly near the end of the program.
Late in Mr. Pärt's "I Am the True Vine," the strong basses droned statically against beautiful pealing high notes from the sopranos. Tallis, in the concluding Agnus Dei, set up a cascading pattern of imitation that emerged fluidly, obliterating the distance between high and low.
Mr. Philips, who founded the Tallis Scholars in 1973, led a crack a cappella contingent of 10 here, in a program presented by Miller Theater at Columbia University. That these excellent singers performed with superb blend and balance, as expected, is no excuse not to have listed them by name somewhere in the program.
Read the full review on the New York Times website.
James R. Oestreich
New York Times, 6 December 2015
5 stars *****
... on Monday the Tallis Scholars gave their 2,000th concert — an extraordinary achievement, especially as two thirds of those concerts have been abroad. Phillips should be given a Queen’s Award for Enterprise to acknowledge his missionary work for English composers, even if most of the ones he champions lived in the 16th century.
Slightly perversely this celebration (opening the London International A Cappella Choir Competition) contained no Tallis until the encore. Then his tiny but contrapuntally astounding Miserere double-canon reminded us of why he towered over Tudor musical life. Earlier, however, we heard a work by one of Tallis’s contemporaries that knocked me sideways. It was the massive Missa Cantate by John Sheppard, whose life and works are still only sketchily known but whose genius seems more astounding with each rediscovery. Here he takes the top line very high and the bass very low to create spacious textures full of catchy melodic twists, and ends Gloria and Credo in ecstasies of counterpoint.
Sometimes in the past 42 years I’ve felt that Phillips’s approach — pure lines, pristine intonation and emotional restraint — undersells the drama in these ancient masterpieces. Not in these surging performances, which also included Gabriel Jackson’s virtuosically challenging Ave, Dei patris filia (written for the Scholars’ 40th anniversary) and two of Byrd’s most grandiose motets as well as his touching memorial to Tallis, Ye sacred muses. What’s clear is that, after about 200,000 minutes of choral music-making, Phillips has hardly deviated from his 1970s ideas about what Renaissance polyphony ought to sound like. Nor should he. In this repertoire he supplies the yardstick against which all others are measured.
Read the full review in The Times.
The Times, 22 September 2015
5 stars *****
What makes the Tallis Scholars so special is not what they sing, but how they sing it. Their founder-director Peter Phillips is, in the best sense of the word, a purist, who believes Renaissance sacred choral music can speak for itself, without exaggerated dynamics or dramatic excess.
Neither does it need sanctimonious presentation in subdued lighting: this was a wholly secular concert with applause between each item – and to the large audience’s credit, free of annoying coughs, fidgets or whooping at the end.
In a programme typical of what Phillips and his singers do so well, short pieces by Tallis, Taverner, Sheppard and the little-known Frenchman Jean Mouton – all performed with an elegance of line and tonal balance that enabled each voice to be heard in perfect relief – formed pithy contrasts to more extended helpings of our own century’s Arvo Pärt.
And Allegri’s Miserere, here given a spatial rendition with the choir divided on two levels and three plainsong tenors hidden echoingly away behind the organ, sounded as wonderful as we expected.
Even more rewarding were the four works by Pärt. ‘The Woman with the Alabaster Box’, in which sustained upper voices provide a connecting thread to a harmonised recitative, explored a wide range of tessitura and sonorities; ‘A Tribute to Caesar’, with the simplest of means, made poignant use of discords as parts nudged into each other; ‘Which was the Son of…’ offered a quite rhythmically catchy (for Pärt) account of Christ’s family tree; and ‘Triodion’, where Pärt echoes aspects of Renaissance style in an incantatory sequence of spiritual odes, hit all the right emotional buttons. Sheer magic.
Read the full review on the Birmingham Post website.
Birmingham Post, 9 June 2015
Unsurprisingly this sell-out concert was the ‘hot ticket’ of the (Cheltenham) Festival. I doubt that anyone present was in any way disappointed, for Peter Phillips and his ten superb singers gave us what was, in effect, a masterclass in a cappella singing – and an enthralling experience. The glorious surroundings of Tewkesbury Abbey – surely one of the finest church buildings in England – added an aura, both visual and acoustic, to an unforgettable concert.
Read the full review on Seen and Heard.
Seen and Heard, 12 July 2013
Back in 1973, when Peter Phillips was an undergraduate and organ scholar at St John’s College, Oxford, the college’s music scene was dominated by a group called Ugly Rumours, fronted by a law student called Anthony Blair (Tony to his mates). Despite his obvious abilities with a keyboard, Phillips never got invited to play for the Ugly Rumours. But anyway, his mind was on music from an earlier age – four centuries earlier, in fact. Gathering together some talented friends, he formed a choir to perform the choral works of the Renaissance, at that time a still relatively unchartered area of the repertoire. And 40 years on, the Tallis Scholars are still going strong.
Yesterday evening (7 March), those 40th anniversary celebrations began in earnest, as Phillips conducted the Scholars in concert at an impressively full St Paul’s Cathedral. Not just the Scholars, in fact, as the ten voices that make up the ensemble’s regular line-up were joined now and again by others when the performing logistics of certain works demanded it. Tallis ScholarsPlus, if you like.
The programme itself was a deftly planned mix of old and very new. The old included Tallis, of course, whose music quite rightly kicked off proceedings, his exultant Loquebantur variis linguis being followed by the three minutes of aural perfection that is the hauntingly plangent Miserere. A superbly sung Byrd Tribue, Domine – voices immaculately balanced and sublimely paced by Phillips – rounded off the first half, while the second began with Allegri’s Miserere (the 1980 recording of which, incidentally, put the Scholars on the map). Lord knows where the vocal solo quartet for the latter were standing. Whispering Gallery? Stone Gallery? The 85-metre high Golden Gallery, even? No idea. I could hear Amy Howarth’s Top Cs swirling gloriously around the Dome, but I couldn’t tell you where they were coming from. I can tell you it was a suitably moving experience.
The new, meanwhile, came in the form of Arvo Pärt’s Nunc Dimittis, plus the world premieres of specially commissioned works by Gabriel Jackson and Eric Whitacre. Jackson’s Ave Dei patris filia is life-affirming, ecstatic stuff, as high soprano twists and turns in playful triplets above the more static lower voices – although the work, which sets the text of a Marian antiphon, has its basis in its Renaissance predecessors, there’s something almost folky about it too. Whitacre’s Sainte-Chapelle, meanwhile, which was influenced by the composer’s visit to the Parisian building of the title, is altogether more solemn and reflective, building up into an intense climax. This was Whitacre in considerably more angst-ridden form than I’m used to, and none the worse for it. I look forward to hearing both works on disc in the near future.
And then, to round off, Phillips’s enhanced vocal forces – 40 in all – mustered for a finale of Tallis’s 40-part Spem in alium, preceded by Robin Walker’s 2003 I have thee by the hand, O man, scored for the same number of parts. You do the maths. With no-one sharing the same part as you, both works must be a devil to sing, not least as Walker is brutal in highlighting nearly all 40 of those voices in exposed solo passages. Both pieces, however, came over thrillingly in the ultra-roomy acoustic of St Paul’s.
Aptly thrilled smiles, then, from the singers themselves at the end – so nice to see performers living the moment rather than feigning aloof indifference. Phillips above all was clearly moved by the occasion.
And now the fun really begins, as the Tallis Scholars begin their 40th-anniversary tour, not just in the UK but globally too. If they are somewhere near you, don’t hesitate to hear them. Two-score years it may be, but this is a group that just seems to get better with age. Which, alas, I can’t say for the Ugly Rumours. They called it a day soon after graduating. And Tony, their star singer and guitarist? I understand he went into politics.
See the full review on the BBC Music Magazine website.
BBC Music Magazine, 8 March 2013
I've never read Fifty Shades of Grey but I believe one steamy episode unfolds to the sound of Thomas Tallis's motet Spem in Alium. On the back of that product placement, the Tallis Scholars' recording of the work recently topped the classical charts.
If it's OK for erotica to evoke spirituality, the other way around is often frowned upon. Still, there was ample sensuality in the Scholars' concert of unaccompanied sacred vocal music, mostly from the Renaissance, all sung with unearthly precision. In Lassus's Osculetur me the two basses provided a foundation around which the other voices wound themselves into an erotic delirium. Throughout, the group's 10 singers, directed as ever by Peter Phillips, mixed and mingled in varying proportions, becoming an octet for Tallis's ascetic Sancte Deus, a quintet for Cornyshe's Ave Maria, then back to full strength for the latter's Magnificat, the most freely expressive of the Renaissance pieces: the single word "Amen" has rarely been so ecstatically ornamented.
For a glimpse of modernity, the Scholars turned to Arvo Pärt, whose music hankers longingly after the past but always sounds entirely itself.
Both pieces - I am the True Vine and Tribute to Caesar - voice Pärt's religious devotion but seem to stare simultaneously heavenwards and into the abyss. In both directions, of course, lies oblivion. Merry Christmas.
London Evening Standard, 21 December 2012
Vancouver possesses an enthusiastic and committed choral scene, something well understood at this festive time of the year. But the latest Chan Centre performance of the Tallis Scholars for Early Music Vancouver proved both a pleasure and something of a reality check: a demonstration of truly fine singing, a selection of wonderful repertoire, and that elusive extra quality that defines real excellence.
The British ensembles's 2012 program was bookended by two settings of the Magnificat by roughly contemporary figures: Sebastian de Vivanco (1551-1622), who worked in Spain, and Hieronymus Praetorius (15601629), who hailed from Hamburg. The motet Osculetur me and the extended Missa Osculetur me by Orlandus Las-sus (1530-1594) formed the sophisticated core of the program, rounded out by shorter works by Arvo Pärt and Thomas Tallis.
Each time we hear director Peter Phillips's distinguished group of 10 singers, there are new things to discover and treasure. The sound - despite inevitable personnel changes over almost four decades - is consistent: very, very pure sopranos, a certain emphasis placed on the somewhat reedy altos and tenors, and an incomparable overall blend of voices. Though the ensemble's sonorities are immediately recognizable, its subtle, responsive sense of style gave each work on this commendably intense program its own particular universe of sound.
The musical raison d'être of the program was the infinitely nuanced contrapuntal mastery of Lassus, music of exquisite intricacy delivered with astonishing concentration. Yet it was the Praetorius work, with charming old Christmas tunes interpolated into a flashy proto-Baroque setting, that provided the evocative climax to a program that ranks as one of the treats of this pre-holiday season. © Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun
David Gordon Duke
Vancouver Sun, 6 December 2012
There is no doubting the quality of these singers. Their intonation, their balance and their timbre are wondrous. Anyone interested in singing, whether in the bath or in one of those 25,000 vocal groups around Britain, could learn so much just by listening to these unaccompanied ambassadors of the purest art.
Read the full review in The Guardian
The Guardian, 28 October 2012
The concert was called “Magnificat”, though half the time the sacred texts in the Tallis Scholars’ programme of 16th and 20th-century music characterised us as miserable sinners down on our knees. Even the encore, Purcell’s Hear My Prayer, O Lord, declined to smile. But the penitent items couldn’t minimise the concert’s greatest glory: the warm, laser-beamed, unaccompanied finesse of Peter Phillips’s singers.
No matter what the crunch of surrounding pitches in the pieces by Arvo Pärt, everyone stuck to their guns, unwavering and unassailed; and the bright heat that arose from Palestrina’s polyphony will probably see me through winter. Compared to other concerts, Wednesday night’s found the group a sliver off their very top form; but in motets proclaiming our misdeeds aren’t signs of human frailty appropriate? Ancient and modern at the same time, Pärt’s Magnificat, Nunc Dimittis, and his sternly simple Magnificat Antiphons (set in vernacular German) slotted easily into place beside the wonders of the late Renaissance. Time stood still during the antiphon cycle as consonant and clashing chords processed in an austere, moving ritual. Time seemed equally abandoned in Tallis’s Miserere nostri, a compact beauty that floated beautifully in space and could last, you felt, for eternity. The restrained decorations in Palestrina’s double-choir settings of the Mag and Nunc particularly benefited from one of Phillips’s special skills: an uncanny ability to increase emotional intensity so subtly that you don’t realise it’s happening. Then, suddenly, pow! The music’s blazing; so are you; and bang goes Palestrina’s reputation as a composer of smooth but desiccated counterpoint.
Allegri’s famous setting of the Miserere, for a long while the Sistine Chapel’s secret treasure, received the concert’s most interesting performance. Lured by its mysterious history, polyphonic exchanges, and the soprano part’s leap up to top C, some ensembles treat it as a choral spectacular. The Tallis Scholars, numbering ten, made it touchingly small and human. The soprano’s big leap, rendered in each of the text’s five stanzas, was a tad scooped in the first three; but the last two tries were impressively clean. God, I’m sure, looked down and smiled.
The Times, 20 October 2011
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.
The Telegraph, 18 April 2011
Whatever a listener’s spiritual bent (or lack thereof), surely only a zombie would have been unmoved by the transcendent singing of the Tallis Scholars on Sunday afternoon in the White Light Festival at Lincoln Center. The festival was created as a spiritual retreat for frazzled New Yorkers; to judge from the awestruck adjectives used by gushing patrons after the concert at Alice Tully Hall, the music making certainly had, at the very least, an uplifting effect.
The Tallis Scholars, a venerable a cappella British ensemble conducted by Peter Phillips, usually sing Renaissance polyphony. They proved themselves equally adept in the idiom of the contemporary Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, who inspired the title of the festival. Mr. Pärt, who rebelled against Soviet atheism, has written: “I could compare my music to white light, which contains all colors. Only a prism can divide the colors and make them appear; this prism could be the spirit of the listener.” Mr. Pärt calls his signature technique, which he developed from Renaissance polyphony and Gregorian and Russian chant, tintinnabuli, inspired by the Latin word for bells. The music features meditative tempos and gently shifting yet static harmonies. But moments of eerie dissonance render the results particularly striking, as in the “Sieben Magnificat-Antiphonen,” which was given a superb performance here. The seven sections, though stark, traverse a variety of moods and textures, from the austere, low male voices of “O Adonai” to the ecstatic “O Emmanuel.” The program also included Mr. Pärt’s “Magnificat” and his “Nunc Dimittis,” in which a dialogue between the women’s voices unfolds over the men’s pedal tones. The rest of the concert was devoted to Tallis Scholars staples, with works by Palestrina, Tallis, Allegri, Praetorius and Byrd, including Allegri’s well-known “Miserere,” in which an embellished soprano voice soars to high C above the ensemble. Throughout the evening the Tallis singers performed with a beautiful blend, the distinctive sounds of individual voices never detracting from the group’s cohesion. Their impressive intonation, buoyancy and expressive use of phrasing and dynamics rendered each work a treat. The program opened with an elegantly shaped interpretation of Palestrina’s “Magnificat” for double choir. As an encore, Mr. Phillips, who said he wished to end the concert “back where we began, in the Sistine Chapel,” led a lovely rendition of Palestrina’s “Nunc Dimittis” for double choir.
Read the full review in the New York Times.
New York Times, 9 November 2010
It’s a long way from Praetorius and Palestrina to Pärt, but the 10 singers of the Tallis Scholars, under University Musical Society auspices, bridged the distance ravishingly. The program, devised by Peter Phillips, the group’s founder and director, was immensely varied. After all, centuries separate Pärt, the Estonian composer born in 1935, from the Renaissance composers on Thursday’s program, a diverse lot that included Byrd, Tallis and Allegri in addition to Praetorius and Palestrina. But in their “Miserere,” “Magnificat” and “Nunc Dimittis” settings, these composers are spiritual allies whose paths diverge only to take us to the same exalted place.
Getting to that place is more than half the fun, especially with singers like those of the Tallis Scholars, whose vocal blend, purity of sound and exquisite tuning are surely unique — and magical in effect. The contrasts in the program’s pithy first half were stunning. From the opening Palestrina “Magnificat for Double Choir,” with its flowing lines and joyous metric shift at the “Gloria,” Phillips and the singers took us to a new world with Pärt’s “Sieben Magnificat-Antiphonen,” short, characterful meditations on German texts (and with Russian male choir undertones) that are filled with stops and starts, dissonances that melt into consonances and phrases that simply hover. The Tallis “Miserere nostri” is music that gathers like a flock coming from the hills — voices layered on voices, glorious in its density (and transparency) and over in a flash. And the Allegri “Miserere,” is yet again something else, an extended work in which the high soprano embellishments soar in like shooting stars (Janet Coxwell did the heart-stopping honors) and choirs divide to conquer, enveloping the audience in sound from the front and back of the church. The second half was equally varied, opening with Praetorius’s “Magnificat II,” playful and joyous (what fun the singers had with the setting of the word “dispersit,” enjoying the composer’s “scattering” effect) and continuing with two richly instrumental, beautifully shaped Byrd “Miserere” settings before concluding with Part’s “Nunc Dimittis” and “Magnificat.” The singing, like the writing, was luminous in effect — dissonance and drones were as exquisite as consonance — and the program came full circle with an encore, radiantly sung, of Palestrina’s setting of the “Nunc Dimittis.”
Read the full review on annarbor.com.
Susan Isaacs Nisbett
annarbor.com, 5 November 2010
The Tallis Scholars have long been stars in the world of early music. The group's performance on Friday evening at St. Bartholomew's Church on Park Avenue, conducted by Peter Phillips, showcased this choir at its luminous best. The program of Renaissance sacred polyphonic music focused on composers from what is now western Belgium and northern France, whose skills were much in demand throughout Europe. These composers were linked not just geographically but musically. The tenor line from Loyset Compère's three-voice chanson "Dictes moy toutes voz pensées," which opened the vocal part of the program, was used by Jean Mouton to structure his "Missa Dictes moy toutes voz pensées," which came next.
It's hard to imagine any deity resisting a plea sung as gorgeously as the Tallis Scholars' rendition of the Kyrie, their voices swelling with soulful precision in the church's resonant acoustics. Throughout the evening their singing was distinguished both by its buoyancy and impressive blend and, on occasion, the distinctiveness (at least from my seat at the front of the church) of individual voices. The low notes of Robert Macdonald, a bass, resonated powerfully through the church on the final notes of a phrase, like the "Amen" in Mouton's "Ave Maria" setting, which was featured in the second half of the concert.
This was preceded by Josquin Desprez's setting of "Ave Maria," which, like Mouton's, was composed around 1500. Josquin's four-part motet was considered advanced for the time, with its vivid relationship between music and text. Mouton's lesser-known setting is notable for its contrapuntal complexity.
The lineup also included a Magnificat by Nicholas Gombert, beautifully rendered with subtle shadings. The program concluded with Josquin's powerful, dark-hued "Praeter rerum seriem," which inspired several parody works, including a Magnificat setting by Lassus.
See the full review in The New York Times
New York Times, 29 March 2010
The Tallis Scholars gave a magnificent, jaw-dropping concert of Renaissance music on Monday evening (December 7) at St Mary's Cathedral. Judging from the standing room only crowd at the church, sacred music written a few hundred years ago with Latin text has a firm foothold in secular Portland whenever this world-renowned vocal ensemble is in town. From the opening note of Josquin des Prez's "Missa de Beata Virgine" to the final chord of William Byrd's "Vigilate Kyrie," the Tallis Scholars (seven men and three women directed by Peter Phillips) stunned the audience with immaculate, urgent, and gorgeous singing without any accompaniment whatsoever.
The impressive concert started with a pitch given by Patrick Craig, who sings the alto line with Caroline Trevor. Craig didn't use a pitch pipe or a tuning fork and that means that he has perfect pitch. For the beginning of each piece, Phillips would signal to Craig and he would concentrate and give a straight, pure tone with no vibrato.
Speaking of vibrato, these singers used very little vibrato, even when they were singing quite loudly, yet the sound was always warm and radiant. They also performed the "Missa de Beata Virgine" - almost singing continuously for an hour - without drinking any water. Indeed, they did have bottles of water available at their feet, but never touched them at any point in the concert.
The music on the program is treacherous enough to cause all sorts of harmonic collisions if the tone ever sagged, but the ensemble never suffered a lapse in intonation or do any slight adjustment. In the "Magnificat" by John Nesbett, three of the tenors chanted phrases in complete unison to such a degree that it sounded like one person. Even the pauses to take a breath were completely in unison.
The two sopranos, Janet Coxwell and Amy Haworth, created soaring lines and pure tones that were to die for. The basses, Donald Greig and Robert Macdonald, sang robustly, added plenty of depth whenever needed, but could pull back on the throttle effortlessly as well. The tenors, Christopher Watson, Simon Wall, George Pooley and William Balkwill, were astounding in range, power, and grace. The altos, Patrick Craig and Caroline Trevor, were especially fun to hear as individuals. Craig's voice was always pure and sometimes fluty while Trevor's voice had more color and more depth.
The ensemble's completely unified vowels and perfect diction made each piece stand out, including the "Tunes for Archbishop Parker's Psalter" by Thomas Tallis, and Byrd's "Ye Sacred Muses" and "Tribulationes civitatum." Peter Phillips, who founded the ensemble in 1973, directed the concert with a minimum of gestures, encouraging the singers with a wiggle of his head and slight movement of his hands. The results were absolutely gorgeous. I don't know when the Tallis Scholars will be in town next time but you have to hear them. They are phenomenal.
Oregon Music News, 8 December 2009
Over 36 years, the personnel of Peter Phillips’s Tallis Scholars has necessarily varied: lives change; voices move on, sometimes to solo careers. But the quality of this cherished Renaissance music vocal ensemble hasn’t budged an inch. As soon as this all-English, early Tudor programme settled into the soaring lines of John Taverner’s Leroy Kyrie, bliss arrived. Perfect clarity. A blend finer than any coffee. Radiant and open expression, belying the singers’ appointed dress code: respectful black.
Who needed a rainbow when Taverner, the first English composer of wide influence and genius, was busy painting the sky? The cornerstone of this Spitalfields Summer Festival concert was his large-scale, sensationally florid Missa Corona spinea. It was clearly written before the English Reformation bit and artistic sobriety ruled: the extravagant six-part polyphony comes topped with a high soprano line fit to scrape Heaven’s ceiling. Phillips’s two vocal aerialists showed no hint of strain or fear: throats conjoined, they surfed Taverner’s big melismatic waves with a thrilling silvery gleam. Lower voices, all two to a part, offered their quieter glories in textures always pulsing forward, driven by Taverner’s thematic games of hide and seek and imitation — this mighty Mass’s secret glue. Phillips moulded the performance wonderfully well, shifting dynamic gears in line with the texts; even Rossini might have admired his crescendo in the Credo.
Programming such a colossus isn’t easy. How do you contrive variety and breathing spaces for audiences? The Scholars subtly solved the problem by interspersing the Mass movements with other church repertoire from mostly later Tudor composers, more gently mellifluous, such as Robert White. The tightly woven beauties of Exaudiat te and Manus tuae fecerunt me, with ten voices fielding ten parts, showcased the width and depth of the Scholars’ vocal spectrum. Some choir directors might chafe at splitting their alto forces between a female alto and a male falsettist, but Patrick Craig’s counter-tenor brought no disruption, only extra colour and warmth. Other selections reduced the Scholars to five: White’s Regina caeli, William Cornysh’s affectingly simple Ave Maria — refreshing and appealing. But no match for Taverner’s holy exuberance .
The Times, 19 June 2009
Choral music at this time of year almost invariably means performances of the Bach Passions, or perhaps, if someone is feeling a bit more adventurous, one of the earlier Passion settings by Victoria or Lassus. But for their Easter week programme, the Tallis Scholars were more enterprising. When Peter Phillips, the group's director, was browsing through a music shop in Ljubljana, he discovered a St John Passion by one Jacobus Gallus - who was born in what is now Slovenia, and lived in central Europe in the second half of the 16th century - and made it the centrepiece of this beautifully conceived and executed sequence.
Gallus's treatment of the Latin text from St John's Gospel is nothing if not compact. The work lasts barely 12 minutes including a brief coda, not taken from the apostle, that reflects upon its message. There are no soloists; the eight-voice choir is divided into two groups, high voices and low, with the lower ones representing Christ, and the higher the other characters in the story, with the two groups joining together to represent the crowd who demand Christ's death. It's gravely beautiful, restrained music, with few moments of mobile counterpoint and more matter-of-fact syllabic writing, and the Tallis Scholars delivered it with poise and intensity.
They are a remarkable group, perfectly matched in tone and unfaltering in their intonation, qualities that made the rest of the programme an unqualified pleasure. In the wholly British first half - anthems by Purcell, followed by Orlando Gibbons and Robert White's Lamentation settings - the mood was sombre; after the Gallus there was music by Palestrina and Lassus's ravishing Media Vita, before the concert ended with William Byrd, his bleak Ne Irascaris followed by the gleaming optimism of the Easter antiphon Haec Dies.
Reproduced from The Guardian.
The Guardian (UK), 14 April 2009
In the world of choral music, it is difficult to find a group more highly respected than the Tallis Scholars, founded in 1973 by Peter Phillips, who remains its director. In more than three decades, the group has come to be known as one of the foremast exponents of Renaissance music.
The acoustically-sympathetic and gracious setting of St Paul's Church, Cambridge, is a perfect venue for this group and the music they sing, and a full house on April 3 greeted the group with enthusiasm, which was immediately proved justified by world-class choral singing.
The thesis of this fascinating program was the connection between Renaissance polyphony and Baroque music, the progression from one to the other, and here the point was made vividly, compellingly, and with great intelligence and insight.
For most of the evening, the music was sung by four sopranos, one countertenor, one alto, two tenors, and two basses, with the exception, in the second half, of several pieces in which Phillips used only eight voices. Anyone inclined to think that early choral music can be tedious should be treated to Phillips' sense of dynamics, his ability to delineate structure, and his uncanny ability to bring to life the tone-painting of this fascinating music. Impeccable tuning in the group makes especially the final chords of many anthems unforgettably compelling.
I recall having heard the group about 15 years ago, when I found the sound a touch dry and emotionally distant, but either their style or my ears have changed, and Friday evening's concert was engaging on every level of professionalism and commitment. If the lead soprano was a touch harsh in the first piece, she quickly blended in for the rest of the program, when ensemble was paramount. Phillips understands "the art that conceals art," and he gets out of the way, letting the music speak gloriously for itself..
There were moments of surpassing beauty: in the "Benedictus" of the Lassus Mass Missa Bel'Amfitrit'altera. At the moment of the Benedictus where the text "Benedictus qui venit in nominee Domine Deus" ("Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord") is heard, the sound of the three second choirmen was as sublime and hushed as I can imagine any choral singing could be, and the second tenor, Simon Wall, brought the same sense of radiance to the Psalm tones of the concluding work on the program, a Magnificat of Heironymous Praetorius. It was a joy to marvel in the vivid depiction of the texts brought to life by the music, in the contrasts between blocks of homophonic sound and the complex interweavings of polyphony.
Two discoveries for this listener were the Lamentations of Alonso Lobo, and Nesciens Mater by Jean Mouton, two pieces meant to be sung together, and made fascinating, as the program put it, by "stunning effects of canonic virtuosity." Orlando Gibbons' masterpiece, O Clap Your Hands, could have been conceived more spaciously in two beats to the measure instead of four, but the texture and color revealed by Phillips' interpretation nonetheless brought the music to life.
A standing ovation brought one encore, Purcell's short and probing Hear My Prayer, sung to perfection, and we headed out into the night with the happy thought that the Tallis Scholars return each year to the Boston area.
See the full review on the Boston Musical Intelligencer.
The Boston Musical Intelligencer, 9 April 2009
Over the past decade at least, Renaissance & Baroque Society of Pittsburgh concerts have been dominated by instrumentalists. The presenting society has averaged about two vocal ensembles a season out of eight concerts. So, when subscribers were asked to vote for their favorite active groups to help celebrate the R&B's 40th anniversary this season, you'd expect instrumentalists to rule. But on the contrary, the winner, the venerable period choir the Tallis Scholars.
It's a measure of the talent and engaging presence of this historically informed choir, and Saturday night reminded the audience at Calvary Episcopal Church in Shadyside of just why.
Director Peter Phillips has not rested on his laurels since founding the group in 1973, but subtly changed its makeup to be more vocally diverse. Most prominently, the two high sopranos boast operatic-like strength while the tenors are much more reserved and gentle in their tone. It creates a richer timbre that helps bring out individual contrapuntal lines.
The program was a luxuriant one: the Latinate sacred music of the Spanish high Renaissance, in particular that of Francisco Guerrero, Alonso Lobo and Tomas Luis de Victoria. But Phillips did not succumb to the temptation to put the sparkle lens on this 16th-century music -- he treated it dramatically. He shaped the volume of Guerrero's motet "Maria Magdalene," raising the intensity as it poured out emotion on the central phrase "he is risen." In Lobo's mass based on the motet, Phillips occasionally treated meter changes almost like accelerandi markings, to great effect, especially in the Gloria text, "Jesu Christe, cum Sancto Spiritu."
The works by Victoria further displayed Phillips' musicality. Three "Lamentations" were subdued, emphasizing the personal plane of this music. At moments of homophony, the singers sounded almost like a magnificent organ; in general they were in tune and tuned in to each other to a remarkable level. Balance was an occasional issue -- depending on where you sat, the sopranos and basses dominated. But when the group sang Guerrero's "Ave Virgo Sanctissima" (with its unison canon in the top two voices that astounds by how diffently he treats the melody when it appears the second time) and his sumptuous, eight-voice "Regina caeli," that issue melted away. To those who selected the Tallis Scholars, I am sure I am not the only member of the audience to say, "Thank you."
Pittsburgh Post Gazette, 20 October 2008
... a crescent moon of 13 clear, unaccompanied voices lifted the spirits singing two late 15th-century European Masses. In olden days the Proms treated early music with tongs, as you might hot toast. Tuesday showed the benefits of immersion, with contrasting Masses from Obrecht and Josquin des Prez, linked by the haunting chanson Malheur me bat sung to a new French text. Des Prez’s Mass supplied the most polished musical mathematics. Obrecht’s, wilder, gave the most vivid and tender display of emotion. Peter Phillips’s group had the measure of both.
The Times, 24 July 2008
Forget the tumbler of whisky before bed. There is no better preparation for a good night's sleep than to take in one of the late night Proms, drinking in some timeless score in the hushed ambience of a half-filled hall, as the hands of the clock tick steadily towards midnight.
For most people in the audience it is probably the second concert of the evening. Tuesday's line-up offered a typically contrasted pair of events: first a standard orchestral programme featuring the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra under Roger Norrington and then a plunge into the distant past with unaccompanied choral music from the Tallis Scholars.
For the late-night Prom two late 15th-century masses were performed on either side of the popular song that had inspired them. It was interesting to compare how Obrecht and Josquin des Prez each used the chanson "Malheur me bat" for his own purposes and the Tallis Scholars under conductor Peter Phillips sang these slow-moving, luminous masses with impeccable blend and balance. Did anybody care that the last tube had just gone half way through the "Benedictus"? This is music where time stands still.
Financial Times, 23 July 2008
In a way, the history of Renaissance music resembles that of jazz, which started in New Orleans and then spread north with the migration of African-Americans in the 20th century. The direction of musical migration in 15th- and 16th-century Europe was south: from present-day Belgium and northern France to Italy, the main source of power and musical patronage. On Friday, the Tallis Scholars and their director, Peter Phillips, traced that path of expatriate influence.
Making their nineteenth annual appearance in Boston, the group first paired a motet by the French composer Jean Lhéritier with a mass based around it by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, the great Italian consolidator of Franco-Flemish innovations. Using a pre-existing piece as a basis for a choral mass was standard practice; Palestrina samples Lhéritier's Nigra sum (from the Song of Songs) in near-literal fashion to open most of his mass's movements. But where Lhéritier lays down plush, echoing layers in languid time, Palestrina reworks the material with a sharper rhythmic profile, a powerful motor idling under the surface, ready to kick into florid gear when the counterpoint reaches critical mass.
The group, 10 strong (sometimes fewer for contrast), demonstrated its fabled precision and purity of intonation, but what distinguished the performance was the corporeal presence of their sound, a subtle viscerality that kept detailed care from tipping over into hermetic preciousness; Phillips didn't seem to shape the phrases so much as allow them room for a hale, natural flow.
The second half featured more paired sets. Jean Mouton's rustically consonant Christmas-pageant Quaeramus cum pastoribus played off Thomas Crecquillon's setting of the same text, whose more understated polish paid off at the bittersweet finish. The solemn cortege of an austere Pater noster by the seminal figure of the Franco-Flemish movement, Josquin Des Prez, contrasted with the antiphonal high-versus-low pealing of Jacobus Gallus's version of the same prayer.
The program finished with Gallus's Omnes de Saba, bright, anthemic fanfares, but the highlight was Gallus's Mirabile mysterium, a theological meditation on the innovative wondrousness of the nativity. Gallus and the singers rose to the challenge with an astonishingly modernist string of disorienting harmonic shifts: serpentine polyphony over chromatic, jump-cut chord changes that would have made John Coltrane proud.
The Boston Globe, 10 December 2007