by Michael Cirigliano II
Photo credit: Matthew Murphy
For everything The Tallis Scholars has achieved in its niche market of Renaissance polyphony, it must also be terribly constricting to work within such a singular musical form. Founded by director Peter Phillips 40 years ago, the English group has become synonymous with the choral music of 15th- and 16th-century Europe, consistently setting the standards for the repertoire in terms of both musicological scholarship and performance style. But whereas other "period" ensembles can traverse a wide range of musical styles within a single period—think of John Eliot Gardiner's Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique, who perform works ranging from courtly Beethoven through to fiery Verdi—Renaissance polyphony isn't as diverse a genre, which can leave an entire program feeling a bit redundant.
Such was the case with The Tallis Scholars' performance at Times Square's Church of St. Mary the Virgin Saturday night, this season's final installment of Miller Theatre's Early Music series. With works from Josquin Desprez, Cipriano de Rore, John Sheppard, Michael Nyman, and the group's eponymous composer, Thomas Tallis, the two-hour-plus evening provided consistently high musical standards but couldn't produce the highs and lows needed for a true musical journey.
Desprez's Praeter rerum seriem, a Christmas motet written during the composer's late period, began the program, an interesting work that presents a simple plainchant melody before quickly morphing into ever-evolving permutations that leave the opening strain almost unrecognizable by the work's end. Despite the boomy acoustics in the church, the ensemble's sense of timing and articulation was pristine—no small feat given the dense construction of the material and the intricate canons laced throughout.