St John's, Smith Square
Taverner – Dum transisset Sabbatum
Taverner – Magnificat à 4
John Plummer – Anna mater matris
Taverner – Magnificat à 6
Monteverdi – Missa in illo tempore
Peter Phillips (director)
St John’s, Smith Square is currently celebrating its twenty-fifth annual Christmas festival. Looking at the other names involved, there is very much an ‘Early Music’ emphasis, but this offering from the Tallis Scholars was more restrained, in temper and in content, with respect to its seasonal contribution than one suspects some others may have been. Indeed, two Magnificats notwithstanding, it was more a Marian than an Advent or Christmas survey.
John Taverner’s music occupied most of the first half. First came the Easter responsory, Dum transisset Sabbatum, telling of the three Marys going to the tomb intending to anoint the body of Christ, culminating in the first Alleluia since the onset of Lent. Though the Tallis Scholars tend not to occupy themselves with exaggerated wordpainting, there was a (relatively) sensual emphasis upon ‘aromata’, the aromatic oils the women would use. Plainsong sounded evocative in the best sense: restrained, permitting the words to speak, preparing the way for polyphony. All twelve voices had been employed for the responsory; four left the stage for Taverner’s four-part Magnificat, sung two to a part. The chant was nicely flexible, contrasting with what one might think of as audible, though not rigid, bar lines for the flowering of polyphony. Wordpainting could again be heard without exaggeration upon ‘dispersit’, the proud duly scattered. Save for an uncharacteristically weak bass entry upon ‘Esurientes’, this was again a fine performance, which, like that of the six-part setting, furnished a sense of the canticle as a whole.
In the latter, the sopranos who had now joined the throng were able to soar. There was naturally something of a more ‘choral’ sound to the ensemble with the greater numbers, but Taverner’s polyphonic lines remained crystal clear. I much appreciated well-turned melismata upon ‘nostros’ and ‘saecula,’ and a radiant culiminating doxology. All that was missing was Taverner’s other setting, in five parts, but the Tallis Scholars are due to record all three. In between the Magnificat settings, we heard John Plummer’s fifteenth-century supplication to Anna, the mother of the Virgin. Five solo voices, without Peter Phillips as conductor, created a lighter texture, through which one could hear very well what Alexandra Coghlan in her programme note referred to as ‘relentless F major’. In that sense, the work sounded relatively modern, yet the musicians’ delivery of their lines and occasional hints of a drone impressed upon us a more mediæval quality.
The second half brought Monteverdi’s parody mass on a motet by Gombert, the Missa in illo tempore, four hundred years old this year. Where the contemporary Vespers are full of avant-gardist seconda prattica, the a cappella mass displays the composer’s command of the old-style prima prattica. Phillips’s shaping of the Kyrie impressed: the opening ‘Kyrie eleison’ leisurely bit not staid, evincing the delight in sacred music as music that has always been a hallmark of his approach. Liturgical reconstructions and so forth are the province of others. The responding ‘Christe eleison’ and finally the second ‘Kyrie’ statement evinced a cumulative gathering of pace, the latter quite glorious. I cannot claim that I could discern every word of the Gloria, but the wash of sound was beautiful in its own right, and the calls of ‘Gloria’ could certainly be heard; the intonation of a new, more sombre mood upon ‘qui tollis peccata mundi’ was unmistakeable, within again a fine sense of the ‘movement’ as a whole. The Credo largely followed suit, an especial highlight being the properly luminous – obliquely seasonal? – ‘Lumen de Lumine’, whilst the Mystery of the Incarnation itself was movingly expressed in the still centre: ‘et incarnatus est de Spiritu Sancto, ex Maria Virgine, et homo factus est.’ The final section, from ‘Et in Spiritum Sanctum,’ provided a more overtly Venetian-sounding climax. Hints of this could be heard in the melodic aspects of the Sanctus and Benedictus, though more than equally apparent was the ghost of Palestrina. In the unhurried unfolding of the Agnus Dei, relatively austere and very much of the prima prattica, one was reminded once again – though how could one forget? – that musical beauty requires no instruments other than the voice. As an encore to this fiftieth appearance of the Tallis Scholars at St John’s, we heard a carol, Hieronymus Praetorius’s Joseph lieber, Joseph mein.