The Tallis Scholars create unforgettable night of the sublime

Stephan Bonfield, Calgary Herald
28 April 2018

The Tallis Scholars concluded their international War and Peace 2018 spring tour Tuesday at the Bella Concert Hall with a concert hosted by Luminous Voices that all of us will cherish. It was radiant with a haunting Renaissance repertoire commemorating those who lost their lives in the First World War.

This was only the second Tallis Scholars appearance in Calgary in nearly 30 years but the wait was well worth it. They sang exquisitely, every millisecond of music perfectly crafted and every sonority a nuanced world unto its own.

And lest we forget that art emboldens, memorializes and makes a perfect virtue out of our memories of those who pass on, Tuesday’s perfect recital by the world’s finest early music a cappella ensemble served as an ideal tribute to the impact our mortality confers upon the many definitions of human existence.

Surrounding the concert’s theme of battle was the famous L’homme arme tune which gave us two Mass fragments by Josquin and the mid-century Spanish master Guerrero, based on the secular piece with lyrics “fear the armed man.” All the works selected thereafter were driven by the relevance and immediacy of war in our own times and the carnage it brings. In the Renaissance, war, death and commemoration had no peer as inspiration for sacred music writing.

The best examples came in the concert’s deeply moving first half, with Jean Mouton’s classic funeral motet Quis dabit oculis, followed up with Alonso Lobo’s Versa est in luctum. The impact of this remarkable pair of works, thanks to the choir’s unique phrasing and warmth, likely would have left the Bella in total silence had it not been for the applause after each selection.

The surrounding Mass movements of the concert’s first half were sublime. Nothing perfunctory here: the Kyrie from Josquin’s Missa L’homme armé sexti toni was a suave masterpiece of phrasing and the Guerrero Gloria from the Missa Batalia with its throbbing, reduced-texture slow sections made scrupulous use of glowing harmony and a subtly broadened chordal spectrum. The Credo from the Missa Batalia was a conspicuously well-programmed ending to the first half, with its flowing, optimally dense counterpoint.

But the true highlight was Arvo Pärt’s The Woman with the Alabaster Box, the story of Jesus’ anointing with precious oil, his disciples’ objections, and Jesus’ gentle counsel that his disciples would always have the poor among them. Pärt’s counterpoint is pellucid, the Tallis Scholars’ rendition crystalline — the finest possible demonstration of a seamless, perfect tintinnabulation style specified for these works. Each mild dissonance was wedded closely to the text, set against a larger-than-usual plethora of gorgeous sustained tones. In the balanced space of the Bella, each line, every moment, every resonant ring of the acoustic mattered. With this minimalist music, the Tallis Scholars made count every maximalist moment.

The Tallis Scholars don’t merely sing the black and whites, they perform everything in colour. Without them, music could not weep our saddest songs, our most profound truths.
— Stephan Bonfield, Calgary Herald

And it was so, yet again, in the second half with John Tavener’s Song for Athene, when Luminous Voices joined onstage with the Tallis Scholars, a golden moment and perhaps the most moving piece of all. “Life: a shadow and a dream, weeping at the grave creates the song ” not only called up images of Princess Diana’s funeral from 20 years ago, but of the deaths of so many I have known and miss so very much. Such was the profound personal nature of the concert.

Other second half works included the standard bearer Agnus Dei from the Pope Marcellus Mass, a performance that never sounded tired or shopworn, just serene, celestial and effortless. The same could be said for Victoria’s Requiem aeternam that opened the second half and the Sanctus from the Guerrero Missa L’homme arme, each conveying their own unique truths.

But the Requiem’s Libera Me was a pleasant surprise for its discrete emotionality buttressed by powerful rhetorical chords as only Victoria knew to write them (“quando caeli movendi sunt et terra,” “when the heavens and the Earth shall be moved”). Another Versa est in luctum, this one from Victoria’s Requiem, was the perfect encore that left the hall silent once again before an explosive applause.

The Tallis Scholars don’t merely sing the black and whites, they perform everything in colour. Without them, music could not weep our saddest songs, our most profound truths.