peter phillips

Tallis Scholars review: Enlightening and enthralling

Still going strong after 44 years, acclaimed English vocal ensemble lives up to its name and reputation

by TERRY ROSS

Since their inception 44 years ago, The Tallis Scholars have led the way in performing choral music of the Renaissance. Under founder and director Peter Phillips, the English ensemble has made almost a hundred recordings of the great composers of the 15th and 16th centuries, won every possible award for quality and generated a wagonload of ecstatic reviews. So let me join the crowd by acclaiming their most recent Portland concert on April 4 (their sixth, always in St. Mary’s Cathedral) as superbly sung, brilliantly interpreted, and carefully programmed.

Heard in person, their sound, always impeccable on recordings, takes on added luster and range of volume. It’s always a fresh thrill to hear these ten singers rise from a whisper to a fortissimo; it’s a big sound, made possible by fine voices but especially by the cohesion of the singers, who are absolutely in synch with one another and therefore project a united sonic product that twice or six times as many singers in a less “together” choir would not be able to muster.

The Tallis Scholars’ latest Portland appearance nearly sold out St. Mary’s Cathedral. Photo: Cappella Romana.

Over their decades, the Mr. Phillips and his Scholars have educated their public in their chosen field of music, otherwise intimately known only to organists and choristers in England and select parishes in America. In doing so they have created a small army of amateur musicologists familiar with a fair sampling of the big names in Renaissance choral music, including Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (c.1525-1594), whose music appears on at least a dozen of the Scholars’s recordings, and Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625), on half a dozen. In this Portland concert presented by Cappella Romana, Palestrina was represented by a Pater noster and Gibbons by a Magnificat and a Nunc dimittis.

Also present for the musicologists’ delectation were the less familiar: Hieronymus Praetorius, John Sheppard, Jacobus Gallus (also known as Jakob Handl), Jean Mouton, Johannes Eccard, and Andres de Torrentes. Not a few of the Scholars’s audience attend with learning as much on their minds as appreciating fine singing, and such ancillary figures are crucial. The nearly sold-out cathedral at St. Mary’s was full of local singers, conductors, music educators, and other aficionados.

In Metamorphosis, the Scholars repeated a program they had done a number of times in England. Built around four essential texts of Christianity — Magnificat, Pater noster (Our Father), Ave Maria, and Nunc dimittis — done variously in Latin, English, Russian Church Slavonic, and German, the concert featured eight selections in the first half (Magnificats and Pater nosters) and nine in the second (Ave Marias and Nunc dimittises). A special treat was the presence on the program of 20th-century composers Gustav Holst (1874-1934), Igor Stravinsky (1881-1971), Arvo Pärt (b. 1935), and John Tavener (1944-2013).

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