The Tallis Scholars
City Recital Hall, November 5
The Tallis Scholars, under founder and director Peter Phillips, have developed and – in brief and shining moments – perfected a distinctive and emblematic sound that has become so closely associated with English renaissance music that is easy to forget there is any other way of approaching it.
The tone has pristine clarity, balance and purity with extremely lean use of vibrato. The resulting blend has an edge of brightly focused resonance that is flexible enough to adapt to the music's interweaving undulations in a way that is responsive and lithe.
That balance took a moment to settle into the transparent lightly coloured acoustic of the City Recital Hall and some of the lower voices in the classic 16th century polyphony of William Byrd's Laudibus in Sanctis were over-penetrating.
That sorted itself out in the three anthems by the early 17th century master Orlando Gibbons, in music of gentle liveliness (O Clap Your Hands), floating mellifluousness (Lift up Your Heads) and darker expressiveness (O Lord, in thy Wrath). Hymn to the Creator of Light, by the contemporary English composer John Rutter, called for different timbres, with harmonies that mutate from dissonance to consonance like resolving light to create moments of remarkable iridescence and intensity.
For Allegri's Miserere, the singers used the stage and high balconies to separate out the choir, soloist and semi-chorus. The precision of coordination was immaculate as was the warmth of sound from the choir on the stage and the gleaming clarity of the group high above, who embellished the choral verses and whose soprano took the music up to an enchanting but apocryphal high C with ease.
Scholars have dismissed this famous moment as a 19th century interpolation, but the Tallis Scholars retain it, showing being unauthentic can also have its guilty pleasures.
In music by their namesake, Thomas Tallis, they produced music of tender warmth and touching simplicity (If ye Love Me). The Lamb, by John Tavener, colours a simple recurring theme with harmonies that move from comforting warmth to acerbic truth.
Both halves contained glorious music by Henry Purcell and they closed with Arvo Part's Which Was the Son Of..., a dubious hymn to a patriarchal church in which women apparently played no role at all.