Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Detail from Zurbarán's Saint Serapion.
The reputation of the Tallis Scholars precedes them; as everyone likes to say these days, they're "the rock stars of Renaissance vocal music."  (Even though they're far too nerdy to be taken for rock stars - at least  next to the likes of Il Giardino Armonico!) And last weekend at the Church of St. Paul in Harvard Square (as part of the Boston Early Music Festival's spring concert series), the Scholars pulled a rock-star-sized crowd (the church was full to bursting), who I think were more than pleased with the singers' performance.

Still, I'm afraid I left the concert feeling that the early music field is quite crowded with "rock stars" these days, some of whom are nipping at the Scholars' heels, and a few of whom may have actually gained a slight edge in artistry.  It's not that the Tallis Scholars' musicianship (under the direction of founder Peter Philips) isn't superb; it is.  The core of their sound - pure-tone singing with near-perfect pitch - remains a wonder, and they achieve a truly consummate blend when the many vocal lines of the piece they're singing resolve back into a single chord.  Pitch-wise, nobody does polyphony like the Tallis Scholars.

But the majestic reverb of St. Paul's made it hard to judge the crispness and focus of the various singers' entrances and exits, and the group suffers from a slight, but constant, balance problem: its women are far stronger than its men, none of whom has remarkable power or truly distinctive timbre.  As a result, the sopranos dominated the mix with a force that sometimes edged toward stridency.  And I have to add that conductor Peter Philips allowed this to remain a constant - along with the Scholars' ever-meditative pace - through a wide array of quite varied sacred music; indeed, one sometimes felt that a focus on the details of a unifying technique had distracted the Scholars from the individual profiles of the pieces they were singing.

No longer the only rock stars in early music - The Tallis Scholars.
Yet in a way, the ruminative, near-harshness of the Scholars' vocals threw into high relief the emotional tone of the music they had chosen - that of Tomás Luis de Victoria and other exponents of the Spanish Counter-Reformation (as evidenced in the earthy work of Zurbarán, above, who lived at its tail end). In short, this was music to suffer by - maybe even to be martyred to.

Which isn't to say that pain can't be the source of great art - indeed, agony as an aesthetic is basically the sine qua non of the Counter-Reformation. So it's no surprise the composers of the period should have been so focused on lamentation - even the opening alleluias of Regina Caeli, a vigorous work by Francisco Guerrero, here sounded slightly lachrymose. The Scholars' musical predilections were more in synch, however, with the heartbreaking Lamentations of Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla, Francisco de Peñalosa's Sancta Mater, and the brief but piercingly dissonant Versa es in luctum by Alonso Lobo. And the Tallis men perhaps sounded their best grounding Sebastian de Vivanco’s Magnificat Octavi Toni (I won't get into what that "Octavi Toni" means, it's complicated).

The entire second half of the program was given over to Victoria's second Requiem, which is widely considered his masterpiece.  This is the 400th anniversary of the composer's death, so in a way the work doubled as a requiem for its creator -  but its haunting hush, pierced here and there by tortured, plaintive cries, only made you wonder why we haven't heard more Victoria before now. Anguish may have never sounded so good.

But I'll have more to say on Victoria tomorrow, when I consider a second program largely devoted to his work, this one by Harry Christophers and the Handel and Haydn Society chorus.

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