33rd Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square: The Tallis Scholars

“This seasonal programme is book-ended by two grand settings of the Magnificat for Double Choir. The first, by Hieronymous Praetorius, is extended beyond the normal liturgical text by two of the most famous Christmas carols, one sung as an antiphon, the other embedded between the Magnificat’s verses. Equally focusing on the Virgin is Pärt’s beautiful Virgencita which, as the title page states, is ‘Dedicado a Ntra Señora de Guadalupe’. The remainder of the programme takes a more mystical view of God and Creation, something which is emphasised in Rutter’s Hymn with its magical quotation of the chorale melody Schmücke dich. The three items by Byrd follow this line of thought. And we end with Victoria’s glorious 8-voice Magnificat, one of his most extrovert and engaging statements of faith.” [St John’s website]

The Tallis Scholars
Peter Phillips (director)

Reviewed by: Amanda-Jane Doran

Reviewed: 21 December, 2018
Venue: St John's, Smith Square, London

The Tallis ScholarsPhotograph: © Nick RutterNot many choirs can fill two prestigious London churches in the same week. The Tallis Scholars and Peter Phillips are such a draw. Following Temple Church, St John’s Smith Square glowed and buzzed with anticipation at the prospect of a programme that revolved around settings of the Magnificat and biblical texts in veneration of the Virgin Mary.

Hieronymous Praetorius’s Magnificat V opens with a delightful combination of ‘In dulce jubilo’, partly sung in colloquial German, and formal Magnificat text in Latin. The sopranos blended beautifully as this intimate cradle-song alternated with tenor chant and fugal writing. The Germanic flavour was extended with a Nunc Dimittis by Johannes Eckhart, which provided the perfect bridge to one by William Byrd, another work that provided contrasts between melancholy and layered five-part singing of great beauty at the coming of the Light, and Tribue Domine is a profession of Byrd’s faith in troubled times and it resonated here just a stone’s-throw from Parliament.

Celebrations in praise were the keynote of the second half, again dominated by Byrd. The gorgeous strains of Laudibus in Sanctis as he mimics the poetry of sweet cymbals and lofty organs, and Arvo Pärt’s Virgencita followed on seamlessly; its suspensions and dissonances beguiled us into a state of ecstatic concentration. John Rutter’s Hymn to the Creator of Light was an inspired successor. Victoria’s Magnificat Primi Toni a 8 concluded the concert with a riot of polyphonic effects. The Tallis Scholars conveyed all the complexity of this repertoire and communicated its spiritual depth and meaning, reiterated in the movingly simple encore, The Lamb by John Tavener.

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