review by Alexander Bonus
Next year, the Tallis Scholars celebrate their 40th anniversary. Within that time, backed by 50-odd recordings and over 1,700 concerts, they have set the benchmark for Renaissance vocal ensembles across the world. The Tallis Scholars have been called one of the 20 greatest choirs of the modern age, and given their resplendent performance on Sunday at Duke Chapel, it would be difficult to argue otherwise.
It is a rare occurrence to find an ensemble of any genre that lives up to its lofty reputation as documented on recordings and promotional materials. But in a live performance, however unlikely it might seem, the Tallis Scholars can surpass even the best of their albums. This has much to do with the ensemble’s sound concept, which founder and director Peter Phillips has finely honed since 1973. It is a riveting timbre impossible to recreate on a record. Although personnel changes occur on a regular basis, the Tallis Scholars’ signature sound remains a constant. Clarity of tone, precision in tuning, meticulously matched vowel-colors, and an overall balance across vocal ranges are their hallmarks. By cultivating these as essentials to the performance of a cappella polyphony, the ensemble has achieved an aura of sonic perfection seldom heard from a collection of human voices.
For the Tallis Scholars, eminently polished vocal production is their interpretation. So if any fault exists in the group’s approach, it stems from the fact that their fine, almost flawless technique results in a homogenous performance style that is applied across all historical repertoires. Their Allegri sounds like their Byrd; their Isaac resembles their Gesualdo. And while this is a matter of taste and not of “correctness” or “authenticity,” their homogenous interpretive approach was evident in Sunday’s program, “The Field of the Cloth of Gold,” which pitted two different composers—from two different cultures, writing in two different polyphonic styles—against each other, in a sort of musical competition. And make no mistake: the musical works of William Cornysh and Jean Mouton are radically contrasting models of 16th-century polyphony.
On the French side, Mouton’s treatment of vocal lines is refined, controlled, and eminently balanced. Contoured phrases begin and end with poise. Imitation occurs where you might expect— Mouton’s motets are oddly comforting for that reason. (His music became an important model for the next generation of composers, with their tendencies towards more orderly polyphony.) Cornysh’s music, on the other hand, occasionally sounds idiosyncratic and unsettling due to his unpredictable (some would say unrefined) compositional technique. Compared to Mouton, his music is not so tidy or well-managed. Often, melismatic passages spin off for extended lengths of time, headed for places unknown. Part writing is more jagged and jumpy, thus betraying the influence of older generations of polyphonic composers. Some might consider Cornysh’s many odd musical moments to be less polished, but they are also more thrilling to the ear. Such compositional differences seemed glossed over by the Scholars in favor of astounding vocal control, all the more impressive for being maintained, with consistently fine production, for nearly two hours.
It is not known what works were actually performed during the extended meeting of Henry VIII and Francis I. Almost certainly, the musical offerings at Calais included instrumental dance music, more delicate works for viols and lute, and louder, more raucous musical fare intended for ceremonial jousts, banquets, and other games. Yet the Tallis Scholars’ program dealt primarily with the possible sacred works heard at the summit. Of course, this is the repertoire at which the group excels, but one work pointing to the pleasurable earthly sphere was a welcome contrast to the serious music dominating most of the concert. The round “Ah, Robin,” attributed to Cornysh, allowed the male voices to blossom as true soloists, and their haunting rendition easily demonstrated why the tune achieved such popularity in its day. The selection seemed to alter the mood within Duke Chapel, and so it is slightly regrettable that more secular music couldn’t find its way into this intriguing thematic program.
Nevertheless, given the diverse selection of compositions they did offer, the Tallis Scholars sustained a sound both immediate in power and otherworldly in affect. Through their collective ability to sing with crystalline projection and an unwavering intonational sense, the group at times mimicked the sound of an organ. One could sense the audience’s appreciation for the uncommon musical occasion. In the Chapel’s vast, reverberant space, rarely was a cough heard—a sign not only of good health but respectful attention. Elation for the entire experience was released only after Cornysh’s grand and demanding Magnificat, when the audience called the group back three times. Thomas Tallis’ gem “O Nata Lux” provided a fitting encore to an event that verified how profoundly moving so-called early music remains for listeners today, especially when performed with such skill and conviction within a space as inspiring as Duke Chapel.
Dr. Alexander Bonus is the Director of the Duke University Collegium Musicum.