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

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The Independent Culture

Taking place within St John's regular Christmas Festival - now 21 years old - this concert by The Tallis Scholars, under its founder/director Peter Phillips, drew the largest audience I have ever seen in this space. The galleries, bar, and restaurant, plus the main space of this deconsecrated church, were absolutely brimming.

The Scholars came of age long ago and, although a vast following has been built up, the group is beginning to sound a mite tarnished. Where once the purity of line, the accuracy of intonation, and the blend of sound were all aspects to marvel at, here at least a shaky first half questioned those assumptions. But intelligence of programming has always been good, and this was no exception.

In these nervous days of wishing people "Happy Holidays", Renaissance sacred music of a profoundly Christian provenance was celebrated. "Foreign" composers were flanked by English, although the first half sported only the locals. Thomas Tallis's "Loquebantur variis linguis" made a wonderful opener, the glancing harmonic blows caused by the independent clashing of lines a shivering delight. But, with 10 singers, including two sopranos, the top line was at times strained. This a cappella music is cruelly exposed and the grander acoustic of a mighty cathedral might have helped to support it.

In Christopher Tye's "Missa Western Wynde", the help of a few young choirboys might also have been desirable. And singing without vibrato (as required these days) does make life more difficult up in the stratosphere. Diction, too, from top to bottom, was not what it could have been, which was a pity because, if clear, the progress of curling contrapuntal lines is more easily followed .

The discovery of the evening was two motets by the Flemish composer Philippe de Monte (1521-1603). His "O suavitas et dulcedo" and "O bone Jesu" were both gravely beautiful, suavely melodious and harmonically rich. Beginning the second half, these motets seemed to find the choir in much better form. And in Palestrina's "O bone Jesu", intonation and blend was also far surer. With John Taverner bringing up the rear in two of his votive antiphons, "Quemadmodum" and "Mater Christi", even the high notes were fully negotiated, and we could leave feeling elated.

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