MUSIC / Diffident voices: Meredith Oakes on seasonal offerings from the Tallis Scholars, King's College Choir and Philharmonia Chorus

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The Independent Culture
The Tallis Scholars sang their way nearer to the firmament last week. These supreme guides to the a cappella soul of the 16th century have the presentation and deportment of a class jammed under the spotlight at an end-of-term concert. They slouch. They slump. They tuck their heads sideways, or shift from foot to foot. One of their most distinguished members has a voice-projection system that seems to involve bouncing the sound off the floor just in front of his feet, occasionally leering up at the conductor as if through a periscope.

That such a shower can produce such beautiful, resonant interpretations testifies to the happy diversity of nature. A slowish, dryish start, with the opening tenors and basses of Josquin's Praeter rerum seriem finding their way into the unforgiving Elizabeth Hall acoustic, only served to highlight the fact that this concert was a lived process, not a smart display. Peter Phillips, with his courageously slow tempi and his refusal to push for loudness too soon, enabled his 16 singers to listen, respond and play to the resonance of the space.

In Cipriano de Rore's eventful Parody Mass, with its strong alto centre based on the Josquin piece, the Scholars attained a lovely heart of sound that carried through all the flowing polyphony and the lively rhythmic changes. Other highlights were Palestrina's pietistic Salve Regina, where Phillips asked for swells and accents on small phrases or even syllables, and a fine Magnificat by Cornyshe with high-flying sopranos and lots of antiphony and dramatic changes of rhythm. In a diffident, meditative quest for the best sonority, the Scholars arrive at performances of tremendous passion and verve.

Verve was certainly offered by Stephen Cleobury, conducting the choir of King's College, Cambridge, at St John's Smith Square on Sunday night: he set off into Byrd's Five-Part Mass with the brisk stride of a fitness-walker. This concert showed another side of English choral life: the church professionals, all-male, all-confident, with a certain distance from the music. The complicated mechanisms were smooth, clear and balanced, but pride in the workmanship was not matched by sensuous pleasure. Boys and men stood interleaved, no one next to another singer of the same part, maximising risk and responsibility, hardening nerve, but also perhaps blunting details of intonation and losing core resonance.

Cleobury preserved a liturgical shape in the Mass, adding Propers, and dividing the sections with Byrd fantasias. Effervescently played by David Goode on the new St John's organ, these were a feast of bubbling accelerating runs and triumphant cadences. Goode provided more joy with Dupre's wonderfully louche Variations on a Noel, leading a nave little tune through a profusion of distorting rhythms and registers as through a hall of mirrors. Among the choir's unusual Christmas songs were fresh, memorable performances of Arvo Part, Judith Weir and Poulenc.

There was more gloss in the Verdi Requiem that Lorin Maazel conducted at the Festival Hall on Thursday. Maazel remains one of the world's best conductors, and in the Philharmonia's whispered opening and the blast of the Dies Irae we knew it. The Philharmonia Chorus was superb throughout, but drive (and pitch) slipped away from the soloists despite the excellence of the bass, Gregg Baker, and the pizzazz of the mezzo-soprano, Claire Powell.