The eyes of Tallis Scholars and their founder-director Peter Phillips must have bulged when they walked on to the stage of the Albert Hall for their late-night Prom on Wednesday. They're a popular number around the globe, and their closing item, Tallis's magnificent 40-part motet Spem in alium, is a real crowd-puller. But it can't have pulled a crowd like this before – the only empty seats were a few up in the gods and those behind the stage. There must have been close on 4,000 people there.
The programme offered works by Catholic composers in the England wracked by the Elizabethan reformation – music written under the vengeful eye of a repressive and nervous police state. No single piece better illustrates the knife-edge between earthly terror and eternal damnation that recusant Catholics had to tread than William Byrd's three masses, pared of all unnecessary gesture so that the Lord could receive his homage before the Tudor KGB broke in the doors. The austerity of Byrd's Mass for Five Voices is a stark reminder that its earliest performances would have been given in ambient fear, the fleeting beauty of the music underlining the very real threat of violent interruption. Andrew Stewart's excellent programme notes heightened the tension between such sophisticated beauty and its savage times.
The first of two settings of the Lamentations of Jeremiah came from The Tallis Scholars' eponymous composer, depicting Jerusalem in a state of spiritual desolation – another bitter tang of contemporary relevance? Tallis responds to the text with music of immense sadness, the melodic lines drifting down like flecks of dust upon the eye. The second Lamentations setting came from Alfonso Ferrabosco the Elder, in music that alternates quiet dignity and dramatic directness.
Aural relief from all these five-part choral textures came from Catherine Ennis with three keyboard pieces by John Bull. Ennis brought out the sheer weirdness of Bull's Gloria tibi Trinitas, its hypnotic repetitive patterns and dislocated phrases sounding unexpectedly modern.
A live performance of Spem in alium always brings a conflict between ear and eye: close your eyes and let the spine-tingling richness of the music wash through you, or open them so you can see the geography of the piece at work as the texture spreads along the eight five-part choirs, allowing you to impose some intellectual order on what you are hearing.
However, Peter Phillips did lose some of the spatial impact by lumping his singers together in the centre of the stage. And some of the musical power was lost to strain in several of the all-important soprano lines.
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