Tallis Scholars: A cappella Renaissance singers express joy, artistry

The Tallis Scholars made their 10th appearance Friday for the Friends of Chamber Music before an eager audience that filled the nave of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception to overflowing. This year marked the ensemble’s 40th anniversary of traveling the world as the premier performers of a cappella Renaissance music.

Leader and founder Peter Phillips conducted by indicating the line more than the tempo, never forwardly gestural yet always precise.

Though the concert was smack in the middle of holiday bustle, the ensemble eschewed works commenting on the birth of Jesus. Instead, the program featured exultant pieces celebrating moments of jubilation from Christian tradition, as well as works honoring the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene.

The purity of tone and clarity of diction throughout indicated the Scholars’ devotion to historic accuracy and stylistic artistry.

The first syllable of Tomás Luis de Victoria’s “Dum complerentur, dum ergo essent” struck like a bell: precise and resonant. From then on they brought forth singing of beauty, exquisite line and balance.

Victoria’s “Missa Gaudeamus” followed. The intricate work of imitative entrances and contrasting patterns created a heady, swirling motion completed by pristine cadences and delicate dynamic changes. The inner voices colored the harmonies, especially a brief, enticing trio section during the Gloria and the piercingly close chords of the Agnus Dei.

The second portion started in a different vein with Philippe Verdelot’s reverent “Beata es Virgo Maria.” It was darker, slower, the staggered entrances creating a gentle pulse, contrasting to the rallying “Sint dicte grates Christos” with the depth and tonal nuance of an organ.

The 19th century selection was Anton Bruckner’s motet “Ave Maria.” The sopranos soared impressively and the full ensemble demonstrated a drastic and superb diminuendo on the “amen.” This was contrasted with Victoria’s “Ave Maria à 8,” set for two choirs of overlapping lines.

Two works by Francisco Guerrero completed the program. The sorrowful, continuous lines of “Usquequo, Domine” pleaded to God to cease suffering. Throughout, the voices emerged from the texture, only to fall back, becoming incorporated once again in this emotionally challenging work. The layered entrances of his “Maria Magdalene” offered a triumphant account of the risen Christ, with ecstatic “Alleluias” and rattling fortissimos.

For the encore, they chose John Tavener’s setting of William Blake’s “The Lamb.” With a startlingly different tone from all that had come before, it had a gentle quality of sculptural, chromatic movement and synced syllables.