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.