Bath Mozartfest – The Tallis Scholars: Mozart Roots

Hieronymus Praetorius
Magnificat II
Videns Dominus
Die mit Tränen säen
Selig sind die Toten
Deutsches Magnificat
Ad Dominum cum tribularer
Missa brevis
Komm, Jesu, Komm, BWV229

The Tallis Scholars
Peter Phillips

Reviewed by: Rian Evans

Reviewed: 8 November, 2008
Venue: Bath Abbey, Bath, UK

The Tallis ScholarsBath Abbey’s resonant acoustic makes it a good setting for baroque repertoire and this concert, given as part of the annual Bath Mozartfest by the Tallis Scholars, under director Peter Phillips, augured well. The ten singers produced a vibrant sound that reverberated beautifully.

Phillips had selected 17th- and early-18th-century works setting predominantly mournful texts, perhaps reflecting the eve of Remembrance Day. All, bar one, were by German composers, reflecting the concert’s title “Mozart Roots”, which points to the debt Mozart’s sacred music owes to earlier composers.

Yet what had promised to be a fascinating concert made no connections which were anything other than generalised, the programme notes confined to placing individual composers in historical context and with scant reference to style. While some will feel that these matters are best left to musicologists, the Mozartfest is surely one of the places where such things could be usefully explored. In the Scholars’ programme, it was the moments of chromaticism and of interweaving counterpoint that seemed to bear comparison with Mozart’s practice and, since these are features common to his instrumental as well as vocal music, the audience might have appreciated some more specific tracing of roots.

Perhaps the most obvious link with Mozart was in Allegri’s “Miserere”, which, legend has it, the young genius wrote down from memory after having heard it sung in the Sistine chapel during a visit he made to Italy in 1770. In our time, the piece is known less for Mozart’s prodigious feat than that of young choirboys in reaching the otherwise unassailable heights of the five-times repeated top C; here, it was achieved with commendable panache by one of the Tallis’s female scholars heard at a distance. The disposition of the two choruses at different points in the abbey – the group of five voices remained on the platform in the transept, while the group of four voices (among them the singer of the top Cs) stood at the high altar under the great East Window, with the plainchant intoned by a soloist in the central aisle – added considerably to the dramatic effect of this work.

Ironically, with the three pieces by Heinrich Schütz – in whose music the influence of his teacher Giovanni Gabrieli and the architecture of St Mark’s in Venice is so discernible – there was no attempt to underline the spatial dimension; though the antiphonal effect of the double-choir in the jubilant “Deutsches Magnificat” briefly transported the listener across the Alps. Meanwhile, it was in the brief but pungent “Ad Dominum cum tribularer” by Hans Hassler, a pupil of Giovanni’s uncle, Andrea Gabrieli, that a Mozartean chromaticism was most audible.

The music of Praetorius which had opened the Tallis Scholars’ programme was notable for its occasionally florid melismatic phrases and, while the Bach motet for double-choir “Komm, Jesu, Komm” formed a glorious finale, any connection with Mozart was left to speculation. From murmurings heard in the audience, the sounds achieved by the Scholars’ sometimes full-throttled high sopranos were not to the taste of everyone, and there were indeed moments when they could have projected less forcibly and relied a little more on the acoustic. By and large, though, Phillips coloured the tone with care.

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