Proms Chamber Music No.5 (18 August)

Missa sine nomine
O bone Jesu
Quomodo cantabimus
Timor et tremor

The Tallis Scholars
Peter Phillips (director)

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 18 August, 2003
Venue: Lecture Theatre, Victoria & Albert Museum, London

To the non-specialist, the prospect of an hour of unaccompanied 16th-century religious music by the little known Filippo di Monte, even when served with a leavening of Byrd and Lassus, might seem like an unenticing prospect. However, this cleverly constructed and splendidly executed programme confounded expectations, containing as it did music of surprising emotional range and diversity.

Filippo di Monte is little known and this year is the 400th anniversary of his death. Born in Italy where he worked initially for the Orsini near Perugia, later gravitating to Vienna and Prague, where it is thought the Missa sine nomine was written. Monte even visited England to sing at the wedding of Philip II and Mary Tudor. The engraving plates for much of Monte’s music were destroyed by Allied bombing during the Second World War. Known or not, rather like raising Lazarus from the dead, the large-scale Missa proved worth resurrecting. Written in the full 8 parts, not simply for a double choir, it received an enthusiastic performance from the Tallis Scholars – affirmative and forward moving in the Credo, assuaging and serene in the final Agnus Dei.

At the centre-point were two short highly-contrasting motets by Byrd and Lassus. Byrd’s heartfelt Quomodo cantabimus (How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?) assumed a particular poignancy when one remembers Byrd’s divided loyalties as a devout Catholic caught up in the religious tensions of Protestant Elizabethan England. After the relative austerity of Monte’s Missa, this was music of extraordinary richness and fullness, superbly and lovingly performed. A greater contrast with the succeeding, nearly contemporaneous, motet, Timor et tremor (Fear and trembling) by Orlande de Lassus could hardly be imagined.

Since Lassus is reputed to have been kidnapped three times in his youth on account of the beauty of his unbroken voice, perhaps he knew whereof he spoke when it came to setting this particular text. Written at the Court of Munich in 1564, this six-part motet is tortured and highly chromatic, bringing to mind the music of Gesualdo but without quite matching his non-sequiturs and aural shock value. It ends with extraordinarily modern-sounding syncopation to implore “O Lord, I have called on thee, let me never be confounded”.

Monte’s three-section motet O bone Jesu, a calm reassuring work of supplication. “Pour into me grace, wisdom, charity, chastity and humility” runs the final part of the text. Who could quarrel with that? Written in six parts, it was given here with the full twelve voices of the Tallis Scholars to add to its richness, a serene and sonorous conclusion. Despite the proliferation of other vocal groups, after 30 years this is repertoire in which the Tallis Scholars still have few equals and no superiors.

  • Radio 3 re-broadcast on Sunday 24 August at 1 p.m.
  • BBC Proms

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