The Tallis Scholars Live In Rome

Author: 
Michael Oliver

The Tallis Scholars Live In Rome

  • Motets, Book 3, Surge illuminare Jerusalem (8vv)
  • Missa Papae Marcelli
  • Stabat mater
  • Alma Redemptoris mater
  • Magnificat I toni
  • Nunc dimittis
  • Miserere mei
  • Motets, Book 3, Surge illuminare Jerusalem (8vv)
  • Missa Papae Marcelli
  • Stabat mater
  • Alma Redemptoris mater
  • Magnificat I toni
  • Nunc dimittis
  • Miserere mei

The sense of a memorable occasion is quite tangible here. It's audible on CD alone, without the images of the video. The largely Italian audience, assembled in Palestrina's own great Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore to mark the 400th anniversary of his death, is clearly impressed by The Tallis Scholars' virtuosity: the applause, respectful from the start, rises in enthusiasm with each item, culminating (despite the presence of numerous grave and reverend Monsignors) in shouts of ''Bis!'' and ''Bravi!''. No wonder: the performances throughout have the tonal beauty, the control of very long phrases and the immaculate tuning that we've become used to from Peter Phillips's choir, but must have been revelatory in choir-starved Italy.
Do The Tallis Scholars add anything special because of the place and occasion? Certainly, and here comparisons, which ought to be neither here nor there, are in fact very interesting. I was expecting the huge space of Santa Maria Maggiore to have slowed the singers down. Quite the reverse. The Missa Papae Marcelli is in fact a good four minutes faster than in their previous recording, made in 1980. No doubt they know the piece even better now, and no doubt Phillips has changed his view of it. But it really seems as though the building and its acoustic both had an effect, firstly in encouraging the singers really to sing out (the Sanctus has an extraordinary full-throated fervour), but perhaps also the knowledge that this was the very spot where Palestrina worked with his choir prompted an even greater awareness of the music's eloquence. No matter how many pinches of salt we take with the old story that the Missa Papae Marcelli saved polyphony, the Counter-Reformation's insistence on verbal clarity and devout dignity is certainly at work in this Mass, and indeed all the 'late Palestrina' that complements it, but any idea that Palestrina was untouched by the delight in sonorous splendour that characterizes the more 'liberal', baroque side of the Counter-Reformation is scarcely confirmed by the magnificent music here for double choir.
The Allegri Miserere doesn't really belong in this collection, of course; it was written for another building entirely (the Sistine Chapel) decades after Palestrina's death. It's included, I suspect, because Peter Phillips, alongside his scholarship and his gifts as a choir-trainer, has a feeling for drama. The spatial effects of this music could not be rendered nearly so spectacularly in the Sistine (video will show you how: Choir 1 to the right of the chancel, the chant-intoning tenors to the left, Choir 2 magically distant, far away beyond the gates of the chapel of Paul V). It is stunning, with Deborah Roberts in the florid solo soprano part floating high Cs and roulades up into the vast space with luminous clarity. The Palestrina pieces have their own drama, and they are shrewdly programmed. It was good to begin with the almost rollicking jubilance of Surge, illuminare, wise to follow the showy Miserere with Palestrina at his most sublime in the Stabat mater. To follow that with the hymn-like, homophonic Alma Redemptoris mater, and that with the joyous Magnificat (for two choirs, but sounding like at least six, of quite different colours) is programme-building of a high order. To add the eight-part Nunc dimittis as an encore with its wonderful arching lines and a firework-display of counterpoint at the end, has a touch of genius to it.
The sound is splendid, the acoustic always perceptible but the singers never lost in it (they are in fact more recessed in the halo of Merton College Chapel's reverberance in their earlier, more gravely monumental recording). On video or LaserDisc (I've only seen the former; it has excellent sound-quality) you also see the 16 singers dwarfed but not dominated by their surroundings, the women's dresses and the red carpet they stand on, vivid splashes of colour against sombre stone and bronze; you see also the Basilica's magnificent mosaics (beautifully photographed) and you perhaps reflect that it was beneath them that Palestrina, as a 12-year-old choirboy, first realized what sounds could be made in such a noble space.'

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