MUSIC / Instinct and intellect: Tess Knighton on a performance of recording quality from the Tallis Scholars at the Queen Elizabeth Hall

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Christmas is as good an excuse as any for a programme of Renaissance sacred polyphony and a concert by the Tallis Scholars is a gift for aficionados at any time of the year. The Queen Elizabeth Hall lacks the resonant acoustic of cathedral or chapel but the clarity it affords matches that of the CD, so in a sense this was the Tallis Scholars' sound as familiar from their impressive output on that medium.

It was enormously to the singers' credit that the recording light could have stayed on for almost the entire programme; standards of intonation and ensemble were as impeccable as ever. Nor were the performances of music by Tallis, Byrd, Josquin, Verdelot and Victoria lacking in atmosphere; the singers have become so accustomed to one another that they seem able to tap into something special with the intuition of actors who have played opposite one another for years.

The Tallis Scholars began and ended their programme with music by the composer after whom they are named including two pieces for the rather unusual combination of seven voice parts. In the case of his mass Puer natus est nobis, thought to have been performed in celebration of the union of Mary Tudor and Philip II of Spain on Advent Sunday 1554, it has been suggested that this scoring resulted from the performance that would have been given collectively by their respective chapel choirs. It is certainly a fitting piece d'occasion, sonorous and solemn, even when, as here, sung with only two voices to a part.

Tallis exploits the contrast between low and high combinations of voices within the full texture, sometimes with quasi-polychoral effects, as towards the end of the Gloria. The opening of the Sanctus is shot through with achingly beautiful suspensions, while the Agnus dei has a contemplative, almost static quality with, none the less, a strikingly bold harmonic move at the second 'miserere nobis'. This is vintage Tallis, though the Mass has had to be to some extent reconstructed from the fragments that survive.

So, too, the substantial five-part antiphon motet with which the Tallis Scholars ended their programme: Ave Dei patris filia. This was the first modern performance of a new edition of the piece, skilfully - and lovingly - pieced together by David Skinner. It is an earlier piece, rather less assured in terms of structure, but impressive nevertheless. Obviously David Wulstan's theories (that Tudor church music should be transposed upwards, usually by a third) still have currency - such was the tessitura of the soaring treble line here: but beautifully though sopranos Ruth Holton and Deborah Roberts sang their vertiginous phrases, is this really what was intended?

Contrasting scorings, with only one voice to a part, featured in the Marian motets by the other composers in the programme. How spare Josquin's Ave Maria . . . virgo serena sounded set aside the vocal luxuriousness of Tallis, but what a fine piece of expressive contrapuntal writing it is. And how madrigalian Victoria's Ave Maria . . . benedicta for double choir seemed in comparison to Josquin. Both these received excellent performances: I was less happy about a Verdelot motet, which came over as a curiously directionless piece. But Byrd's Lullaby, which laments the Slaughter of the Innocents, was sung with a hushed poignancy that might have soothed a crying baby.

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