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Three Churches–Ex Cathedra

New York
Alice Tully Hall, LIncoln Center Complex
11/07/2010 -  
White Light Festival: “Magnificat”:
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina: Magnificat for double choir
Arvo Pärt: Seven Magnificat Antiphons – Nunc dimittis – Magnificat
Thomas Tallis: Miserere nostri
Gregorio Allegri: Miserere
Hieronymus Praetorius: Magnificat Ii
William Byrd: Miserere mei – Miserere mihi, Domine

The Tallis Scholars: Janet Coxwell, Amy Hayworth, Amy Wood, Cecilia Osmond (Sopranos), Patrick Craig, Caroline Trevor (Altos), Mark Dobell, Christopher Watson (Tenors), Donald Greig, Rob Macdonald (Basses), Peter Phillips (Founder and Director)

The Tallis Scholars (© Eric Richmond)

When recruiting talent for an all-Asian arts festival several years ago, I was taken to a West Bengal forest, where a rural Indian group were supernaturally talented. They would run out of the forest to pounding drums, stand on the ground for a few seconds, and then leap four to four to five feet in the air from that standing position. With fires flickering that night, with crowds roaring with enthusiasm, this group was, I felt, going to be the stellar attraction in Hong Kong.

What happened then? They arrived in Hong Kong, and to a well-dressed audience of proper British and Chinese, they ran on stage in the very proper Arts Centre and leaped up. Others stood and leaped, others drummed–and the audience politely applauded. And frankly it was a disaster.

The art had to be partnered wit the atmosphere.

The Tallis Scholars could hardly be a disaster in beautiful Alice Tully Hall yesterday afternoon as paret of the White Light Festival. Yet at times I had to imagine them in the Sistine Chapel or St. Paul’s Cathedral or Notre Dame or even St. Patrick’s Cathedral a few blocks from this concert. I imagined their voices not only singing perfectly but with their voices resonating, even blurring over each other. through chapel after chapel, around the curved Gothic arches with the staring lifeless eyes of saints in the candlelit naves.

This was patently unfair. My musings hardly deterred this group of 10 singers who, for almost four decades has been touring a world which provided cathedrals, temples and, yes, concert halls. Yesterday, their program, called Magnificat, gave magnificent music from three different Christian faiths–Roman Catholic, Anglican and Estonian Orthodox Church–and they hardly needed naves and icons to exhibit their aural adoration.

While we hardly needed a leap of faith to believe in their Magnificats, the Tallis Scholars leaped over the centuries, from late Renaissance smack into contemporary Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. That leap did anything but shatter the late Renaissance atmosphere. For Mr. Pärt’s religious music (he writes almost nothing else) employs many Renaissance techniques. His seven antiphonies on the Magnificat used several Russian-style chants in the bass or soprano, the other music whirling about in variations. The harmonies were hardly dissonant any more than Philip Glass might be considered dissonant. The only difference is that in the Renaissance these discords resolve themselves into a more orthodox chord, while Pärt allows them to linger.

But above all, Pärt has a sanctity in every note. The seven antiphons, sung in German, were miniatures, lacking the Pärt miracle of repeated variations, but they were like Sapphic fragments, each with a musical punch. Ending the program was his Nunc dimittis, which had the time to develop into a rich harmonic texture, then the Magnificat, with the soprano chanting against the rest of the “chorus”.

P. Phillips

I say chorus, though we only had ten singers. The Tallis Scholars, though, while limited to ten, can produce within Pärt’s density, a far more dense, even luxuriant vocal patina. Peter Phillips, who founded the group in 1973, leads with a sure hand, bringing out solo purity and choral richness.

The all-too-perfect voices grew spatially with the famed Allegri Miserere, the work which Mozart “stole” when he heard it. (The Vatican would not allow anyone to copy the notes, but when Mozart heard it, he went back and copied it note for note from memory). Here, the Tallis Singers put one tenor voice in the upper balcony singing the plainchant, had four singers on stage, and five offstage to create a Sistine-Chapel like resonance. The piece itself sounds old-fashioned these days, but was certainly impressive for Renaissance audiences.

Nothing was old-fashioned about those two British chums and business partners, Byrd and Tallis, Like Lutheran Bach writing for the Catholic Church, Byrd was a Catholic who wrote for the Anglicans. Tallis was a true believer. But both wrote music that was exuberant and joyful, as was the Praetorius Magnificat. I had only heard the Praetorius court dances before, but this work danced along with bobbing, sometimes jumping rhythms.

Nothing jumped, though, in the first work, Palestrina’s Magnificat for Two Choirs. Probably the original choirs were young boys or older castrati (or an alternation of both?). The perfection of the Tallis Scholars, while sometimes uncanny, was in perfect league with Palestrina’s own perfection. I believe it was Gounod who said Palestrina was monotonous because of its serenity. The Tallis Scholars could never be considered monotonous, but their very perfection is challenging. One must never be overwhelmed by such perfection, for they call to us to listen carefully, even critically.

In a church setting, one may luxuriate in their prayers and orisons. In a concert hall, their songs over the centuries call for as much discernment of their art as appreciation.

Harry Rolnick



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