Prom 7: 25th July 2001 Late Night Tallis

William Byrd
Mass for five voices
Ne irascaris, Domine
Thomas Tallis
Lamentations (Set 1)
Spem in alium
John Bull
Doctor Bull’s my selfe
Gloria tibi Trinitas
Ut re mi fa sol la
Alfonso Ferrabosco (the first)

Catherine Ennis (organ)
The Tallis Scholars directed by Peter Phillips

Picture: Tallis Scholars
photographer: James Brabazon

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Reviewed by: Duncan Hadfield

Reviewed: 25 July, 2001
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

One certainly can’t, on paper at least, fault The Proms for their ambitiousness and diversity. Following the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s appearance with Leonard Slatkin playing Christopher Rouse and Mahler as the evening concert (Prom 6), the sparsely-populated ensemble that comprises The Tallis Scholars, making a belated Proms debut, offered contrasting fare of austere 16th-century liturgical settings for its late-night recital.

In all things musical, it appears that our island lags behind developments on the continent by a few decades. It always seems to have been like that, the 16th-century being no exception. In Italy the likes of Lassus and Palestrina were, by 1550, elevating settings of the liturgy to a polished, polyphonic high-art; English composers were still toying with simple secular songs, with the occasional, though no more harmonically advanced madrigal thrown in for good measure. It was left to the first great English composer of the late Renaissance to change things. He was William Byrd (1543-1623).

The extended 25-minute Mass for Five Voices of 1595 with which this Prom began stands among the composer’s best known pieces. One can hear why – it’s a consummate construction, with the sections of the Mass not linked by conventional plainchant, but instead by Byrd’s choice of common themes, almost in the manner of leitmotif. Under Peter Phillips’s fastidious direction, the Tallis Scholars’ expertise of precisely pitching the overlapping strata of voices for which Byrd calls was exemplary; enunciation and articulation were equally fine, as was the steady pulse which kept this lengthy Mass’s momentum going.

In 1575 Byrd and Tallis were granted a monopoly to publish music for Elizabeth I, producing a joint anthology of motets later that year. Following Tallis’s death ten years on, Byrd consolidated and published the collection, including his own Ne irascaris – apparently modelled on themes from Ferrabosco the Elder. Andrew Stewart, in his programme note, describes one Byrd savant’s response to Ne irascaris as a ’quiet masterpiece’: too quiet for my straining ears in the Albert Hall, its serenity undermined by an obfuscation of tintinnabulating note values.

Similar doubts of audibility appraised the sets of Lamentations – Tallis’s first set and those of Ferrabosco I (1543-88). The former’s dignified music failed to register as it might have done in a resonant Catholic enclave of the Marian era; similarly, Ferrabosco’s denser, more impassioned writing for five voices, though more urgently presented, made little more impact.

Indeed, for an upping of temperature and a reciprocal sense of audience engagement, one had to wait for the evening’s final piece – Tallis’s Gothic and elaborate 40-part Spem in Alium. This is a brilliant ten-minute masterpiece in which eight choirs of five voices weave a complex net of polyphonic strands around a simple but accruing progression of chords. Full-throated, yet losing nothing of the pitch, the Scholars, at last, made the most of the RAH – positive sense of ethereal power.

This hotchpotch was no fault of the Scholars. Why an intimate concert like this couldn’t be programmed in the more conducive setting of another Kensington haunt – namely Brompton Oratory, as in the ’old days’ – is a mystery to me. To present everything from Tallis to Xenakis in the Albert Hall might be fine if one is listening on Radio 3. Here the fully prepared Tallis Scholars, one of our best early-music outfits, brought an intriguing choice of music by 16th-century composers persecuted for their religious beliefs … but the repertoire’s intimacy was lost, before a note was sung, by inappropriate presentation.

The only music I haven’t mentioned yet drives this point home. Playing three of John Bull’s pieces from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book on a tiny ’period’ organ tuned to a variety of mean-tone temperaments, the airs emanating from Catherine Ennis’s keyboard might have been coming from a transistor radio on the moon!

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