Tallis Scholars, St John's, Smith Square, London <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

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The Independent Culture

Night after night of choral perfection and packed houses: whatever makes the classical business keep saying it's starving to death, when it is flourishing so much more than 30 Christmases ago? Perhaps such thoughts lay behind the Scrooge-like decision of the Tallis Scholars to centre their programme on the Lamentations of Jeremiah, the most enduringly resonant of complaints that things ain't what they used to be.

And there was more. This liturgical programme began on Easter Saturday, turned back to meditations on the Crucifixion, and barely registered the time of year by choosing a Mass based on the plainchant tune of "Unto us a Son is born". Yet a wilful reverse of seasonal overkill has its charms. The programme featured ten unaccompanied voices singing their way through the succession of 16th-century composers who flourished while England was switching between Catholicism and its new church.

High-flying lines from Taverner, dense glowing textures from Tallis, subtle and lucid spaciousness from Byrd. Peter Phillips drew out the Scholars' finely tuned sound, balancing chords with patient and ravishing exactness. Towards the end of Agnus Dei the echoes of "pacem" rang out over and over, as they built towards an ecstatic wall of sound that recalled what Tallis did with 40 vocal parts, only this time achieving it with just seven.

The sequence of music, placing a long stretch of Tallis between his older and younger colleagues, could have been designed to present him as the greatest of them, with the first part of his Lamentations as the climax. It didn't quite work out that way, partly because the Scholars' performance of the Mass was the actual high point. The other composers came out well, notably Byrd in his Ave verum corpus, as its open textures and teasing clashes had a directly affecting impact immediately after the terser Lamentations.

He did a fine job too with Tribue Domine, a meditation on the knotty doctrine of the Trinity which somehow gave the laboured formalities of the text the space to register, while enlivening the experience all the way towards a sumptuous final outbreak of counterpoint.