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December 10, 2004

Sublime voices, dry setting

The Globe and Mail (Canada):

The illustrious Tallis Scholars exercised their scholarly mandate Tuesday night somewhat out of place at Roy Thomson Hall, with a program of 15th- 16th- and early 17th-century unaccompanied choral music most of which would have been comfier in a cathedral. The cumulative effect of the British choir's rather unbending program, gorgeous singing notwithstanding, reminded me of Igor Stravinsky's remark in another context: "Beautiful. Very beautiful. Dull, mind you." The dullness actually dawned later in the program. In spite of the hall's dry, voice-unfriendly acoustics, the nine singers under their founder Peter Phillips made exquisite work, during the first half, of Palestrina's Missa O magnum mysterium, one of the Italian master's most subtly varied and beguiling Mass settings. Intrusive applause between the sections took some of the bloom off the exalted aura of the performance, but the singers did not let it spoil their concentration.

As a choral instrument, they are extraordinary. Each of the nine voices is its own, with a lovely yet distinctive timbre. You can hear each among the others, yet it fits with them and there is never a sense of obtrusion or imbalance. The achievement of this paradox lies in other qualities the nine voices have in common: intense musicality and impeccable pitch. These somehow blend the differences. We were thrown back on this purely sonic consideration of the singing by the unfortunate absence of English texts for this all-Latin program. This was not so serious a lack in the Mass, of which many in the audience would have known the meaning, or even in the Magnificat IV and Laudate pueri, which followed the intermission in beautiful settings by Orlandus Lassus.

But in the short pieces by Heinrich Isaac, Cipriano de Rore, Benedictus Appenzeller and Mikolaj Zielenski which completed the program, we not fluent in Latin were given no clue of what they were about and had to like or lump them purely as vocalized sound. And in fact, as music, most of them were also less interesting than the Palestrina and the Lassus. In them, I felt conductor Phillips was exercising his scholarly passion for the byways of historical repertoire at the expense of his audience's pleasure. After the lofty satisfactions of the Palestrina and Lassus, it would have been a delight to hear, say, a chanson by Clément Janequin or madrigals by Thomas Weelkes and Claudio Monteverdi, all within the Renaissance purview of the scholars and with a bit more oomph than the Isaac Regina coeli, the Appenzeller Musae Jovis or, especially, the Rore Calami sonum ferentes, a darkly chromatic, deeply lugubrious little curiosity which seemed to waste all the beauty of Phillips's four superb male voices.

It was these pieces that brought Stravinsky's wry remark to mind. The final piece on the program, Zielenski's Gaudete justi, had a bit of life and even some syncopation. But the only encore, the Scholars' preferred version of the beloved German carol Joseph, lieber Joseph mein, slows the rhythm -- a six-to-the-bar somewhere between a siciliana and a jig -- to a crawl and buries the tune in the alto so that you can't hear it for the bright soprano harmonics above it. One hugely admires the Tallis Scholars for their voices, their erudition and their skill. But one would love them if, without compromising their ideals, they would program a bit more perkily.

Posted by acapnews at December 10, 2004 12:07 AM