Tallis Scholars: The German Tradition at Bath Assembly Rooms

THE internationally acclaimed Tallis scholars under their director Peter Phillips were on top form last night when they performed to a capacity audience at the Assembly Rooms as part of this year’s Bath Bachfest.

In an interesting and well-balanced programme of mostly relatively short pieces, they traced and celebrated the development of German church music, both protestant and catholic, Latin and German, from Lassus in the mid sixteenth century through to J.S. Bach himself.

The Tallis Scholars, described by BBC Radio 3 as one of the UK’s greatest cultural exports, have been delighting audiences across the world since they were first formed, initially as an amateur ensemble, in the early ‘70s.  Now, some 40 years on, and with numerous awards, recordings and performances under their belt, they were back in Bath, the city where they actually gave their first professional concert way back in 1977.  Welcome home.

The concert began with Lassus’ motet Omnes De Saba Venient where the ten voices were split into a double choir, something that was to be a feature of many of the works performed last night.  Written towards the end of his career, the antiphonal possibilities of the double choir were immediately exploited. The excellent programme notes encouraged us to listen out for the rich and unusual harmonies stressing the exoticism of Saba (Sheba) and the excitement of the coming of the Three Kings. This we did and we were richly rewarded as the Tallis Scholars’ unaffected purity of tone filled the auditorium. It was a wonderful opening number.

The Lassus was followed by the longest of the evening’s works, Hassler’s Missa Octava. A slightly later work and again written for a cappella double choir, the voices seemed to fill the space quite effortlessly. The Assembly Rooms may lack the resonance and reverberation of the Abbey, but in music such as this, this was no bad thing, as every detail of Hassler’s music was crystal clear.

Perhaps at the end of a movement we might have wished for just a bit more echo, but, in so doing we would no doubt have been robbed of our enjoyment of some of the finer points in the writing – the almost conversational Crucifixus for example, or the crisp changes of metre that were such a feature of the work as a whole. Even Bath audiences get it wrong sometimes and no doubt purists would have been appalled at the spontaneous applause that greeted the unsuspecting choir at the end of the Credo, but it was richly deserved even if it did lessen the effectiveness of the contrast between it and the following Sanctus.  For me though, the climax of the work had to be the bell-like descending scales at the end of the Dona Nobis – absolute perfection in both conception and execution.

The Schutz Magnificat that closed the first half was the first of the evening’s works to be sung in German. Written more than 70 years later than the Hassler, and Schutz’s last work, it was interesting to hear (and see as well) the double choir in action, more use, I think, being made of individual voices within each choir than in anything we had heard thus far. In last night’s performance, the Tallis Scholars not only achieved a fine balance both between and within each of the choirs, but we could hear every word as well, resulting in a performance of great tenderness.

Following the interval the choir re-grouped to perform Bach’s short motet Lobet Den Herrn.  Written, in all probability, 50 or so years after the Schutz, it was the first of the evening’s pieces to make use of a continuo – in this case, a simple organ accompaniment discreetly provided by Ben Nicholas. Again, the clarity of the musical texture was one of the most significant features of the performance, the simple phrase “in Ewigkeit” (for eternity) being particularly lovely.

We then went back in time at least 100 years for Hieronymus Praetorius’ Magnificat I.  No relation to the more famous Michael Praetorius (something I learned last night), the Tallis Scholars re-assembled in their familiar double-choir formation. Unlike the Schutz Magnificat that we had heard just before the interval, the Praetorius setting was in Latin. More expansive and less dramatic than Schutz and with beautifully sung passages of plainchant prefacing the various sections, it was both fascinating and educating to hear both works in the same programme.

The choir then re-grouped for Hassler’s short motet Ad Dominum Cum Tribularer.  Beginning with ascending chromatic phrases and ending with descending chromatics, this work was a real highlight amongst so many other highlights, grabbing one’s attention from the word go. Distress … lying … deceit … it was all there in Hassler’s remarkable miniature.  Two short Schutz motets followed, Die Mit Tranen Saen and Selig Sind Die Toten. There was some particularly lovely word painting in the first of these – weeping and rejoicing were equally well done, while in the second, subtle attention to dynamics and controlled phrasing resulted in a performance of considerable intensity.

The final work was JS Bach’s familiar Komm, Jesu, Komm. Written for double-choir once more, Bach’s constantly varying textures in the first part were supremely well handled and, as had been the case throughout the evening, the words came through with freshness and considerable clarity, director Peter Phillips shaping each phrase with delicacy and precision.  The simple homophonic chorale that forms the second part of the work brought the evening’s programme to a satisfying close and our rapturous applause was rewarded by means of Eccard’s Maria Wallt Zum Heiligtum.  What more could one ask?


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