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August 18, 2006

The Tallis Scholars Dig for Mozart’s Roots

New York Times (NY):

A leitmotif of the Mostly Mozart Festival at Lincoln Center this summer has been contemporary composers’ views of Mozart, but on Wednesday evening at the Rose Theater the festival looked back instead at Mozart’s roots.

The Tallis Scholars - the finely polished 10-voice choir from Britain, led by Peter Phillips - performed works by a handful of Mozart’s predecessors. It sounds like a good idea until you realize how undefined it is: technically, Mozart’s predecessors include everyone from Hildegard of Bingen to Telemann and J. C. Bach, the entire universe of composers a pre-Classical ensemble might perform. When the Tallis Scholars offered a similar program in New York four months ago, called “Mozart’s Roots,” it seemed a stretch for exactly that reason.

This time at least Mr. Phillips included a work with a Mozart connection: Gregorio Allegri’s “Miserere,” a score that Mozart, as a child, reconstructed from memory after a single hearing. It has become a mainstay of the early choral repertory, less for its Mozart link than for its gracefully soaring, irresistible soprano line. Using his own edition of the score, Mr. Phillips created an antiphonal effect by putting four singers in the balcony and five on stage. And he gave the soprano soloist, Deborah Roberts, the freedom to add increasingly ornate embellishments from her perch in the balcony.

The choir’s performances of a Hassler Mass; Schütz’s “German Magnificat,” with its interlocking rhythms; and Isaac’s “Virgo Prudentissima,” with fascinatingly intertwined sacred and topical texts (with a prayer that the Emperor Maximilian might “conquer his wicked enemies”) were striking for textural richness and seamless blend.

Given that so many of this ensemble’s recent New York performances have been either at Riverside Church or the Low Library at Columbia University, which both have reverberant acoustics, it seemed odd to hear the singers in the comparatively dry Rose Theater. No doubt brighter resonance is more historically appropriate for a repertory composed for churches and chapels. But there is something to be said for occasionally hearing this music in a setting that lets you hear more precisely how the strands of vocal polyphony are woven together.

Posted by acapnews at August 18, 2006 12:50 AM