You only have to listen to the first measures of The Tallis Scholars’ 1980 recording of Gregorio Allegri’s “Miserere Mei, Deus” to be ravished by its broad, majestic chords, which seem to stretch into eternity and scintillate as inner voices rise and descend in mathematically perfect counterpoint. Then, after a minute or so, something astonishing occurs; from the distant echo of the second choir, a solo soprano emerges with a phrase that leaps to a high C. This is one of the truly unforgettable moments in great music, and it was written nearly 400 years ago. The debut recording by the 10-member British a cappella ensemble was hugely successful and spelled the beginnings of a remarkable enterprise that has released, on their own Gimell Records label, more than 50 CDs.
Founded in 1973 by early-music scholar Peter Phillips, The Tallis Scholars helped spur the most recent surge of interest in early music ensembles. Phillips is one of the so-called “Class of ’73” — four directors who drove early music interest and founded their respective ensembles all in that same year. (The list also includes luminaries such as the late Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music; Trevor Pinnock and his English Concert; and Andrew Parrott’s Taverner Choir.) The early-music revival of the late 20th century was partly a reaction against modern orchestral excesses and a narrow strip of stale repertoire, and partly an affirmation of a broader cultural current of artistic renewal through simplicity and historical accuracy. Beginning with the Academy of Ancient Music’s recording of Handel’s Messiah, familiar works suddenly glowed in older light, as it were, and attention to little-known masterpieces spread. Violins were strung in cat gut rather than steel, trumpets were valve-less, oboes resembled bulbous overgrown recorders, and conductor-less chamber players stood during performances. But most striking (and difficult) of all: Vibrato was eliminated, or placed in the category of sparing ornamental flourish. An effective straight tone evokes an entirely different experience of duration — one that can, quite literally, change your rate of breathing.
The big buzz in the early-music movement was always in the instrumental ensembles, writes Phillips in the British magazine The Spectator, simply because it was so easy to see and hear a difference in the instruments. Changes in vocal approach are less obvious and certain “since we will never know what they sounded like in the distant past,” he explained, “so The Tallis Scholars have had a slower-burning career, though in its own terms no less revolutionary.” Choristers everywhere regard the group as the elite of the elite, exemplifying the pinnacle of vocal finesse and artistic insight. And they continue as the vanguard of Renaissance polyphony, broadening familiarity with composers like Josquin des Préz, Tomás Luis de Victoria, Orlande de Lassus, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, and William Byrd.
This Friday’s performance at the Lobero Theatre will feature works by Byrd, Josquin, and Edmund Turges, including Josquin’s Missa Gaudeamus. Those who attended the choir’s 2011 Santa Barbara appearance in the deeply resonant Our Lady of Sorrows Church can expect an entirely different sound, as the Lobero’s chamber is smaller and its reverb comparatively thin. This will undoubtedly heighten immediacy and intimacy, while calling forth superhuman breath control. What can be counted on is great singing that stirs a longing for the infinite. We recently caught up with Phillips to discuss the performance, the group, and the future.
The Tallis Scholars had their busiest year ever in 2013 with their 40th anniversary tour. It must be very gratifying to recollect the path you’ve traveled and the world-wide reception you now enjoy. We sang 99 concerts last year, literally all over the world. It was a great thrill, and one I certainly did not foresee when I started.
2014, I gather, is not so intense? About 70 concerts this year — a good year by the standards of ten years ago — and we sang in Moscow, Shanghai, and Mexico City on three different tours within a few weeks in the fall.
What is the special power of Renaissance polyphony, which continues to touch us so deeply even after 500 years? The beauty of the writing, which inherently helps people to relax and get outside themselves. Some find it acts like a drug, which I am often told they hope will never stop!
You sang in Santa Barbara in 2011 at Our Lady of Sorrows Church. This time you will sing at the Lobero Theatre, which has considerably less reverb. How does a difference like this affect your approach to the concert? Not very much. We sing in all sorts of venues all the time and quickly adapt.
It seems to me that choral music continues to grow in popularity and sophistication in U.S. schools and colleges, and I imagine elsewhere as well. Is that what you observe? I have no idea about US schools, though I fervently hope what you say is true. Certainly the world-wide audience is growing, as we can attest, and many of the listeners — especially in China I noticed — are young. So it may be early teaching or just a growing fashion. Either way it is very exciting. Singing in an a cappella is a wonderful way to deploy the brain, of course.
Can you mention something about the repertoire for the December 5th concert? Are there any works relatively new for the choir? Yes, two. The Josquin Missa Gaudeamus is another in our occasional series of performing and recording all of Josquin’s masses. This is a great one. And the Turges Magnificat is a first. It is an extreme piece of music — long and hard. There are not many pieces from c.1500 like this. Think fan vaulting.
With 50 discs to your credit, I would suppose that Tallis Scholars’ recordings encompass a significant portion of surviving great Renaissance works. Or, is there a lot of territory yet untouched? We have hardly started!
CAMA presents The Tallis Scholars at the Lobero Theatre (33 E. Canon Perdido St.) on Friday, December 5, at 8 p.m. Call (805) 966-4946 or visit lobero.com for tickets and info.