The Tallis Scholars Proves Redundant at Church of St. Mary the Virgin
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.
The greatest letdown of the evening came in the form of a new composition by the versatile composer Michael Nyman, Two Sonnets for Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, written for The Tallis Scholars in honor of the 40th-anniversary season. Nyman, who is best known for his lush, romantic scores to The Piano, Gattaca, and The End of the Affair, is equally adept at raucous, rhythmically charged music for both orchestra and his own saxophone-driven group, The Michael Nyman Band. What could have been an opportunity to showcase The Tallis Scholars' talents in an altogether new light, however, ended up being a pair of lifeless sonnets that merely reconstructed two piano preludes of Bach.
Both movements were incredibly static, with initial moments of serene calm eventually toeing the line into white noise, the highest sopranos perched above the ensemble in chronic sighing motives. Such was the spacing of the ensemble's register that the Mexican poet's Spanish text was inaudible; the combination of a lack of textual rhythm and the church's resonance failed to give the group any support whatsoever. Given the Scholars' virtuosic ability to deliver incredibly difficult and tightly wound textures with the greatest of ease, it was an absolute shame for Nyman to only look at color as the main proponent of his piece.
The final five works, two by Sheppard and three by Tallis, found the group once again on home ground. But when compared to the lengthy works that came before them, the five shorter English works felt like a series of "greatest hits" that gave no sense of continuity at best, and felt repetitive at worst. It's a shame that the final work, Tallis' Salve intemerata, was one of the finest performances of the evening—the early work of a composer still finding his own voice and showing a devil-may-care attitude in the process. This performance was thrilling for the group and the audience—who, if like me, felt that rush of childish glee knowing that a long-winded church service had finally come to an end.