For sophisticated seasonal joy, it would be hard to beat the concert by the Tallis Scholars Sunday evening. The British vocal group offered an unhackneyed gathering of high Renaissance glories for a large Chamber Music in Historic Sites audience, thoroughly packing Westminster Presbyterian Church in Pasadena.
The program began with Palestrina, “Hodie Christus natus est,” and the sweepingly lyrical Mass “Ut re mi fa sol la.” The motet emerged dry and rather slow, but the 10 singers proved in perfect accord with the gentle, generous music of the Mass, pristine in production and blend.
Interpretively, director Peter Phillips is an unexceptional centrist. That’s not surprising, considering that over the past decade his much-recorded and well-traveled Tallis Scholars have indeed become the performance mainstream in Renaissance sacred choral music. Singing one or two to a part, the Tallis Scholars concentrate on unified textures, pure sound, supple lines and textual point.
Phillips does not favor tempo extremes, but maintains momentum and direction easily. He responds urgently to the demands of the word setting, and distinguishes clearly between individual styles.
That was readily apparent on the second half, which opened with highly contrasting settings of “Rorate caeli” by Francisco Guerrero, Jacob Handl and William Byrd. The smooth, sublimated intensity of the Guerrero became an almost shouted demand in the Handl, and settled into characteristic dark mystery for the Byrd.
The Scholars’ sensitivity to word-painting was demonstrated throughout, but most obviously in the long narrative motet “Cum natus esset Iesus” by Orlande de Lassus. Richly varied singing--still maintaining the miracle of completely independent linear nuance within complete ensemble integrity--projected the stylized drama of the visit of the Magi.
Settings of “O magnum mysterium” by Byrd and Palestrina, and short pieces by Heinrich Isaac--the disconcertingly odd “Ecce Virgo concipiet,” a stylistic and chronological loner on the program--and Hans Hassler completed the evening.