Review: Tallis Scholars offer sublimely consistent performance

The Tallis Scholars. Photo: Rodrigo Perez

Masters of consistency, The Tallis Scholars’ promise of sublime choral singing never fails to sell out. Monday night’s Chamberfest concert, the choir’s third Ottawa appearance in four years, was no exception, with around 1,000 people filling the Carleton Dominion-Chalmers Centre.

For this current tour, founding director Peter Phillips is presenting contrasting settings of familiar liturgical texts: Salve Regina, Ave Maria, Magnificat, O sacrum convivium and Miserere. The conservative program leaned heavily on English, Spanish and Italian composers of the 15th and 16th century— the Scholars’ bread and butter — with a smattering of pieces by French modernists Poulenc and Messiaen. These may not have been the most adventurous or diverse selections, but they are what the choir does best, and what their fans happily lap up.

The trio of Salve Reginas began with the Gregorian chant of the text, flexibly sung by tenor Simon Wall. The setting by William Cornysh, a favourite composer of Henry VIII, stood out for its virtuosity, with the 10 singers executing the music’s delicate flourishes and ornamentation with a painterly touch, and the tuning rich with satisfyingly buzzy overtones. The Poulenc version, however, while immaculate, felt cold and a little bloodless; even his sacred music requires warmth and sensuality. 

A pair of Ave Marias followed in similar fashion: a monastic chant, a beautifully expressive Cornysh, and a dull Poulenc sung as though he were Praetorius.

Allegri’s Miserere, studded with high Cs like sapphires, is a perennial “greatest hit” of choral music, and was the work many in the audience had come specifically to hear. Although it’s now common for larger ensembles to perform the work, Allegri wrote it for nine voices at the Sistine Chapel: a quartet singing unseen behind a screen, with a quintet in front. The Scholars recreated this effect by placing the quartet behind a wooden acoustic baffle on the stage. (While it’s historically accurate, I do find this approach produces a less impressive sound and striking contrast than when more voices are used for the five-part sections). The piece is a mainstay of the Tallis Scholars repertoire and the performance was as celestial as expected. 

A Thomas Tallis O sacrum convivium was paired with a setting by the 20th-century French mystic Oliver Messiaen. The intonation in the latter, with its famously dense, difficult, dissonant chords, was almost inhumanly precise; the singers produced a perfectly smooth, velvety wash of sound that was more akin to an organ than a choir. 

The concert ended with two lively Magnificats by William Byrd and Tomas Luis de Victoria. A thunderous ovation was rewarded with an exuberant encore, Hosanna to the Son of David by the Jacobean composer Thomas Weelkes

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Natasha Gauthier has been covering classical music in Canada and the US for more than 20 years. She was the classical critic at the Ottawa Citizen, and was one of the founding critics of Montreal's HOUR Magazine. She has served on the classical music and dance juries for the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards. You can also read her at her blog, Natasha has a BA in Journalism from Concordia University.