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MUSIC REVIEW : Tallis Scholars Offer English Rarities

The pursuit of authenticity in the performance of early music is like chasing a mirage in the desert: The goal is always evaporating and reforming in the distance. Ultimately, the task for the performer of early music must be to make that music speak to a modern audience--to listeners with inauthentic ears.

This is something the Tallis Scholars have always done well. While striving for historic integrity, they also keep our ears in mind. Not least is this noticeable in their use of women sopranos and contraltos in place of the boy choristers of Renaissance times.

Then there is director Peter Phillips. No rolled-up manuscript or pounding mace (shades of Lully) for him. He exhorts his singers in the modern manner, shaping phrases, indicating articulations, coaxing expression--there was never a dead moment in the Friday night performance, never a digression into dry-bones polyphony.

Regular visitors here since 1987, the Scholars offered a program of Renaissance Advent music by Spanish and English composers in a packed First Baptist Church of Los Angeles--another in the Chamber Music in Historic Sites series.

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Surrounded by candlelight, the 10-member group devoted the first half to music of Victoria, specifically his Missa “Alma redemptoris Mater” and a motet based on the same chant, both for double choir. Immediately, the antiphonal imitations of the music and rich timbre of the Scholars’ voices made for absorbing listening.

Closer attention provided an abundance of expressive detail: the sudden but subtle switch to triple meter on the words “Sancto Spiritu,” the outpouring of warm harmony on “Pleni sunt caeli . . . ,” the stark octaves of the plea for mercy--even though the Scholars sang with an ease and confidence that never theatrically overstated Victoria’s sacred intentions.

The second half belonged to lesser-known but fascinating music from English composers of the 15th and 16th centuries.

The Scholars sang expressively, but with no swooning or self-consciousness. They offered rhythmicality without precious pronunciation or clipping of line, with an almost instrumental timbre at times, the trumpet-like high notes in Sheppard’s work a startling example. They sang with perfect intonation, and at cadence points achieved a ringing blend rivaling a mirage for shimmering beauty.

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