Taverner: Magnificat a 6
Cornysh: Ave Maria
Browne: Stabat Mater
Tallis: Te Deum ‘for meanes’
Cornysh: Gaude virgo mater Christi
Sheppard: Jesus salvator seculi; Gaude virgo Christiphera
The Tallis Scholars
Peter Phillips (director)
In their typical non-emphatic way, the Tallis Scholars under Peter Phillips presented here a selection of English sacred music from the Eton Choirbook to Tallis. There was little to ruffle anyone’s feathers here, little in the way of overt ‘interpretation’ – certainly in a modern sense – but ample opportunity to appreciate the mastery on offer in this music, its remoteness from many of our present concerns, and some fine singing.
The evening’s full complement of fourteen singers opened with John Taverner’s six-part Magnificat, ably, convincingly reconstructed from the parts that remain. Plainsong roots were evident – that is, after all, how it opens – as was the great musical flowering, both in work and performance, from that most fertile of soil. Melismatic duetting sopranos and tenors on ‘eius’, the whole choir likewise on ‘suo’: detail was attended to without exaggeration. The greater unfolding was, unsurprisingly, the thing, however. ‘Sound’ did not especially vary; textural variety spoke for itself, Taverner’s ornate doxology culminating in a radiant ‘Amen’.
William Cornysh’s Ave Maria – not the familiar text – perhaps sounds more ‘austere’ to our modern ears, closer to its mediæval past, not least in terms of harmonic relationships. Such would hardly be surprising, given its earlier date of composition. Yet it speaks – and here, in performance, spoke – just as clearly, if differently. Just as much ‘happens’, so long as one listens. John Brown’s Stabat Mater sounded, rightly or wrongly, somewhere in between: as much, I think, a matter of programming as of material. It flowed beautifully, sadness lying in the words rather than in any Romantic, ‘emotional’ sense. Antiphonal passages – such as that between soprano and bass parts, ‘Quis non potest contristari…’ – caught the ear and, more important, returned us to experience and contemplation of the celebrated poem. Nevertheless, the cries of ‘Crucifige, crucifige’, if hardly Bachian, seemed to echo through the ages with the accumulated weight of crucified tradition.
Tallis’s Te Deum ‘for meanes’, which opened the second half, immediately sounded very much of ‘our’ Anglican tradition, even thought that requires more than a little backdating. Its English text is one thing, of course, but its directness, its interplay between ‘dec’ and ‘can’ (the two sides of the choir’), its harmony, and much else had it sound more modern than perhaps it is. One drew parallels, of course, not least points of detail – false relations, for instance – with what had gone before, but it was a different church, a different Church too, brought forth in one’s visual as well as aural imagination. Might it have been performed with a little more drama? Yes. Should it have been? Perhaps. Again, however, there was much to glean from the gentle, informed respect with which these voices and their director brought it to life.
Cornysh’s Gaude virgo mater Christi seemed to offer merely in its notes something a little more – this is highly relative – of a lament. Our conceptions of what ‘fits’ a text, however, are not necessarily those of a fifteenth-century composer. It would be mightily strange if they were. The music once again drew us in to the text, another hymn of praise to the Virgin. Two works by John Sheppard concluded the concert. The Compline alternation of chant and polyphony founded upon it in Sheppard’s Jesu salvator saeculi yielded subtle secrets, not least in the surprising – so long as one listened! – final ‘Amen’. The Marian votive antiphon, Gaude virgo Cristiphera – according to James M. Potter’s helpful booklet note, the only example we have from Sheppard – took longer, considerably longer over its words, offering a radiant sense of culmination. This, one felt, was a world of wonders almost yet not quite vanished. The more we listened, the more we shared in it: quite right too.
The encore, Purcell’s Hear my Prayer, still sounds very much ‘with us’: too much so, some might argue, accusing us of sentimentalising. So be it; those grinding dissonances implored as few harmonies can. The English Orpheus will always be with us; so too will his predecessors – as, indeed, will his successors. Why choose?