Prom 43: Tallis Scholars/Peter Phillips – Taverner and Gesualdo

Kyrie ‘Leroy’
Ave, dulcissima Maria; Ave, regina caelorum; Maria, mater gratiae
interspersed with
Missa ‘Gloria tibi Trinitas’

Tallis Scholars
Peter Phillips

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 14 August, 2013
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Tallis Scholars. Photograph: Eric RichmondIt is a cause for regret that in an anniversary year, the music of Naples-born Don Carlo Gesualdo (1566-1613) is featured in just the one Prom this season. Even then that is only the excuse to provide some incidental Marian settings interspersed among a Mass written some generations earlier in honour of the Trinity, the composer of these being an Englishman suspected in his lifetime (c.1490-1545) of active sympathy with Protestantism before it became official policy. These inconvenient facts were hidden by construing the concert as a sequence of motets by Gesualdo – a paltry three, only four minutes apiece – “interspersed with” John Taverner’s Mass (the extraneous ‘Kyrie’ serving perfectly logically to make up for the Mass’s lack of one), rather than the other way around. But seeing as the Mass lasts around 45 minutes and sets a universally known and established liturgical rite, this was clearly the real focus, and that of the Tallis Scholars’ own (commercial?) interests at the moment, since they have recently re-recorded it. Theologically, chronologically, and musically, things did not add up.

Nevertheless the pieces selected were very beautiful and the performances unfolded with a prayerful, seamless flow that, in a certain sense, allowed the music to speak for itself, in its own time. The ‘Kyrie’ was a straightforward plea for mercy, and the longer, more complicated strands of polyphony in the subsequent movements were generally drawn out in a mood of repose, only pushing onwards a little towards the end of clearly defined sections to delineate their structure. A sense of architectural space emerged, particularly through the sopranos’ lines soaring over the lower parts, not with aggressive projection, but with a subdued legato, creating an unearthly quietness for such a high tessitura. Their rising to the major third of a chord at the end of some sections also suggested the angelic realm, with a sharper intonation than would be the case in an equally-tempered system.

Gesualdo’s motets were the occasion for greater intimacy. The sopranos opened ‘Ave, regina caelorum’ with a slightly smoky tone, the tenors and basses following with a more mellow timbre. There were some growling basses too in ‘Maria, mater gratiae’, perhaps evoking the enemy from whom the Virgin Mary’s protection is sought in this prayer.

However much skill and stamina are required to maintain a tranquil and composed atmosphere throughout some long stretches of music; this undoubtedly proved problematic to the interpretation of the works as a whole. There is an analogy between the soaring, monumental structures of Gothic cathedrals and the expansive structures of Taverner’s Mass. But the sublime effect of the former depends upon the tension that arises from the relentless rhythmic drive of arches and tracery, and the tension of bays rising to dizzying heights. Similarly Taverner’s music is not simply a concatenation of mellifluous harmonies, but should evoke real drama. These renditions, though, did not so much suggest the angular severity of Gothic, as the gentle elegance of Palladianism, with their generally modest range of dynamics, tempos and articulation of rhythms.

The relaxed manner therefore detracted from the excitement that should be cultivated, and allowed to fall away, in Taverner’s Mass (especially in the ‘Gloria’ and ‘Credo’), whilst the chromaticism of Gesualdo’s motets (even though less extreme than in his madrigals) tended to lose their piquancy. The smoothness of the soprano lines throughout the Mass tended to efface the expressive edges of Taverner’s melodies, and a loosening up of tempo and musical tension in the “Qui tollis” section of the ‘Gloria’ did not quite strike sufficient contrast with the surrounding music. The “Crucifixus” was rather matter of fact, given the situation it relates, and the long-flowing enunciations of the ‘Sanctus’ were neither sung broadly nor radiantly, which would have been ideal in invoking the heavenly host.

Such an approach would suit Palestrina particularly well, but it was an odd way to pursue the contours of the music of Taverner and of Gesualdo, especially as it was Peter Phillips’s purported intention to demonstrate their contrasting styles, notably and equally dramatic though they are in effect. The Tallis Scholars’ style worked more tellingly in the simplicity and directness of expression in John Sheppard’s ‘Libera nos, salva nos’, given as an encore.

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