Review | Tallis Scholars perform sublime Christmas concert at cathedral

Combine beautiful music, outstanding performers and an acoustical venue that enhances the sound, and the result can be sublime. Such was the case Tuesday night when the Friends of Chamber Music presented The Tallis Scholars at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.

A cathedral devoted to Mary proved a fitting site for the concert, entitled “Hymn to the Virgin: A Program for the Christmas Season.” Recognized as one of the world’s great vocal ensembles, The Tallis Scholars sang works by twentieth-century and Renaissance composers.

The program opened with Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck’s “Hodie Christus natus est” (“Today Christ is born.”) The ensemble’s ten singers captured the work’s crisp rhythms and consonant harmonies with finesse, deftly maneuvering both homorhythmic and polyphonic textures.

The concert featured several settings of the “Magnificat,” Mary’s canticle of praise from the gospel of Luke. The oldest of the settings was that by English composer John Taverner from the first half of the 16th century. Chanted sections alternated with a variety of polyphonic textures. The singers presented extraordinarily ornate melodic lines with grace and musicality, but the diction was not always clear.

Robert White’s brief motet “Tota pulchra es” was loosely translated in the program as “You are altogether beautiful.” It proved to be a lovely and powerful piece, but the sopranos overbalanced the other voices.

Two works by Arvo Pärt, a contemporary composer from Estonia, closed the first half of the program. After his “Magnificat,” the ensemble sang “Nunc dimittis,” the canticle of Simeon, also in Luke’s gospel. With its carefully constructed combination of consonant and dissonant sounds, the music contrasted nicely with the primarily consonant works from the Renaissance.

To my ear, the most exciting piece on the program was the polychoral setting of the “Magnificat” by the German composer Hieronymous Praetorius. Like the Taverner setting, the work alternated chanted sections with polyphonic ones. The rhythmically vibrant work featured full-textured, powerful singing. While once again the sopranos were too loud, the singers displayed excellent diction, particularly to the text “dispersit superbos” (“he has scattered the proud.”)

Benjamin Britten’s “Hymn to the Virgin,” composed in 1930, is written for double chorus. The Tallis Scholars exhibited exquisite singing, but the manner in which they divided the forces did not help the audience discern where one group left off and the next began. A spirited and exceptional performance of Palestrina’s “Magnificat” and “Nunc dimittis” concluded the evening and drew the audience to its feet.