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Classical: Dark Ages brought to light




A RECENT best-selling account of the medieval mind, written primarily to introduce North American readers to the enlightening force of the European Renaissance, repeats a stubborn prejudice against those composers working at the time of Leonardo and Michelangelo. "Music, still lost in the blurry mists of the Dark Ages, was a Renaissance laggard; the motets, psalms and Masses heard each Sabbath... fall dissonantly on the ears of those familiar with the soaring orchestral works which would captivate Europe in the centuries ahead, a reminder that in some respects one age will forever remain inscrutable to others." The view of popular history is clearly not reflected in the tastes of a near-capacity audience at St John's, Smith Square, there to hear a short, but exquisite programme of works long since retrieved from obscurity and presented unashamedly by the Tallis Scholars as timeless masterpieces.

Peter Phillips, who established his vocal ensemble in Oxford in the early 1970s, has done more than any other performer to cut through the inscrutability of late medieval sacred music. He employs singers who have the technique and confident self-belief necessary to deliver apparently endless polyphonic lines without the safety wire of vibrato, their corporate intonation and blend as close to perfection as anything produced by an earthly choir. The Tallis Scholars' approach has drawn criticism from those, myself included, who find unrelenting tonal purity and the avoidance of openly passionate singing often at odds with aspects of the music itself. But there is a persuasive beauty in their work that captivates newcomers to early vocal music while setting aside purist arguments about matters of pitch or word- painting. It is precisely this pristine quality, whether on disc or in concert, that has helped narrow the perceived gap between "Dark Age dissonances" and more recent musical glories.

Thomas Tallis almost certainly crafted one of his most sublime works, the "Christmas Mass" Puer natus est Nobis, during the turbulent reign of Mary Tudor. It provided the substance in the first half of the Tallis Scholars' concert, prefaced by a flowing tenor-voice account of the chant of the same name and crafted to highlight the music's austere beauty. The tiniest moment of false production or a misplaced consonant here registered like a pop on a scratched record, one of the penalties of such disciplined singing but a magnificent guarantee of total concentration and a particular boon in the floated soprano delivery of the Benedictus.

The second half was given over to Marian music, with two works by continental composers framed by pieces from the insular pre-Reformation English tradition. Those in search of spiritual solace were well provided for here, especially so with Victoria's eight-part "Ave Maria" and the incredibly ornate, richly sonorous Salve Regina setting by William Cornysh.