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December 15, 2004

Sacred Seasonal Works in a Struggle for Clarity

New York Times (NY):

The long haul would seem a rewarding one for the Tallis Scholars, who have tirelessly been promoting the wonders of Renaissance sacred music for more than three decades. As a result, this British vocal ensemble can draw audiences not only with its excellent reputation but also through the broader awareness and appreciation of this repertory that the group itself has done so much to create. Both factors no doubt helped it sell out its performance on Friday night at the Low Library Rotunda of Columbia University.

The first half of the program was devoted to the luxurious polyphony of Palestrina's Christmas motet and mass "O Magnum Mysterium"; the second offered shorter selections by Orlando di Lasso, Heinrich Isaac and their contemporaries, including Cipriano de Rore, whose "Calami Sonum Ferentes" was astonishing for its achingly expressive dissonances and pungent chromatic lines. The group sang with its trademark tonal beauty, finely blended sound and elegantly sculptured phrasing. But as its conductor, Peter Phillips, has rightly argued, this repertory demands more than prettiness: it requires a pristine clarity of individual vocal lines so that the exquisitely woven textures can land clearly in the ears.

In this respect, the ensemble faced an uphill battle on Friday, with the high arching ceilings of the rotunda producing a hazy echo-chamber effect (at least from a seat in the middle of the room). Clarity in the upper voices lost out most. The Low space is certainly impressive, but this otherwise rewarding concert served as a reminder that beauty in physical and musical architecture can often make contrary demands.

Posted by acapnews at December 15, 2004 12:30 AM