Momentous first Wellington concert by 40-year-old Tallis Scholars

The Tallis Scholars conducted by Peter Phillips

Tallis: Loquebantur variis linguis; Palestrina: Missa Papae Marcelli; Allegri: Miserere; Arvo Pärt: Nunc dimittis; John Tavener: The Lamb; Byrd: Ave verum corpus and Laudibus in sanctis; Tallis: Spem in alium (with 30 local singers)

Cathedral of Saint Paul, Wellington

Monday 21 October, 7:30 pm

Some interesting facts have emerged with the first visit to New Zealand in the forty years of the Tallis Scholars’ existence. Even though director Peter Phillips was married in Wellington (at Old St Paul’s as he told Eva Radich on RNZ Concert’s Upbeat programme on Monday), as a result of his friendship with distinguished Wellington musicologist John M Thomson, the choir never visited New Zealand. Yet this will be its seventh visit to Australia and it has toured Japan 14 times. How can we manage these things better?

New Zealand has a particularly strong choral tradition and its youth choirs have toured with great success, winning in international competitions. But it seems to be no one’s brief to get overseas choirs or vocal ensembles here. The same is true for orchestras large and small, unless they initiate a tour themselves. The New Zealand International Arts Festival, in its great early years, has been almost the only body to fulfil this role (recall the Hilliard Ensemble and I Musici, in recent years).

Evidently, this tour by the Tallis Scholars was inspired by John Rosser, director of Auckland’s Viva Voce choir, and was brought to fruition through Chamber Music New Zealand in partnership with the New Zealand Choral Federation and support from the Deane Endowment Trust. CMNZ has from its beginnings in the late 1940s collaborated with its sister Australian chamber music organization to get world-class chamber groups here. But there has been no comparable organization whose concern is to bring choirs, or even individual singers here.

The task of gathering thirty additional voices and rehearsing them for the performance of Tallis’s Spem in alium was in the hands of John Rosser, Karen Grylls and Timothy Noon.

In the good old days the NZSO used not only to bring its soloists to play with the orchestra, but saw to it that they gave solo recitals where they could be fitted in to the orchestra’s schedules. That, sadly, seems to have stopped: no doubt they don’t pass the cost/benefit test, now that price rather than value is the criterion. (One of the enlightened measures of the former communist regimes was the maintenance of a state organisation to manage cultural visits in both directions, even though usually with a heavy political hand).

Is it too much to hope that, since private initiative is not working, such a body, arms-length from, say, the Ministry of Culture and Heritage, might be set up to perform this important role? Or to encourage the Choral Federation to undertake these activities with the promise of Creative New Zealand grants such as provided to Chamber Music New Zealand?

A comment from Chamber Music New Zealand
After sending this piece to CMNZ, Chief Executive Euan Murdoch has replied, enlarging on the extent to which they already promote singers and vocal ensembles. We confess, while recalling the performances by each of the named groups and singers, that we had not put the picture together, as Euan has now done, pointing out the way CMNZ has been casting its net more widely in recent years.

Here is Euan Murdoch’s comment: 

“Regarding your comments about a CMNZ-type organisation to tour singers and vocal ensembles, it’s not really necessary. That’s what we already do. If we had more resources, we’d do more! I am a firm believer that chamber music encompasses instrumental and vocal ensembles. That’s why over the last five years or so we’ve toured The Song Company twice, Voices NZ chamber choir, Jonathan Lemalu, the Pierards, Jenny Wollerman and Anna Leese. Many of these artists have been supported by the Deane Endowment Trust who share our vision for showcasing the best NZ has to offer alongside the best that the world has to offer. The 40-part motet project with the NZCF was a prime example of this.”  

The Concert
The Cathedral of Saint Paul was sold out for this second concert in the New Zealand tour: Christchurch on Saturday, Auckland and Napier in the following days. I had a seat in the Choir gallery above the west door and it was a splendid position both visually and aurally.

It was a very well thought-out programme: three of the best-known renaissance choral pieces and other pieces that were sung so clearly and dramatically that the audience was no less engrossed and enraptured by the less familiar. The first sounds of Tallis’s Loquebantur variis linguis, (‘The Apostles spoke in many languages’) voices weaving polyphony, expanding in the long echo of the cathedral, were awesome. Though there were only ten voices, and one focused at times on individuals even when many were singing, the combined effect was balanced, in beautiful accord and giving an impression of a strong and weighty choir of much greater size.

Palestrina’s great Missa Papae Marcelli (dedicated to Pope Marcellus II who reigned for a mere three weeks in 1555) was a marvellous study in the refinement of choral writing; without overstatement, each part of the mass was characterized with subtle attention to the sense of the text. A tenor opened the Gloria with its first exclamatory words to be echoed by the full choir; understated dynamic shifts kept the ears and mind alert to what was going on. The ‘Qui tollis’ verses were a contrast (though the words were fairly clear even when the whole choir was singing energetically, it might have been helpful for those not familiar with the Catholic liturgy, especially in Latin, for the drift of the text to have been summarized in the programme notes), soft and prayerful, words enunciated with clarity, and ending with richly textured male voices.

Such emotional expressiveness kept the liturgical drama alive, especially in the Credo where the words ‘Crucifixus est’, were illustrated poignantly in slow and lamenting phrases. Voices inhabited a disembodied, airy space, less varied dynamics and with legato lines in the Sanctus. In contrast, hushed women’s voices brought an ardent quality to the blessing expressed in the Benedictus.

Finally, in the Agnus Dei, gentleness pervaded, leading to full polyphonic richness in the near ecstatic tone of the sustained harmonies that ends the movement, somewhat echoed in the repeat that served to enrich the whole experience.

After the interval Allegri’s Miserere offered an interesting disposition: a solo tenor in the pulpit, four singers at the rear of the sanctuary and the other five at the front of the choir stalls. Even at the distance I was from the singers, the acoustic contrasts so presented seemed to add to the spiritual significance of the piece. The phrases of the high soprano that seem to yearn heavenward as it reaches top C, had a singular intensity that was as moving to a non-believer as to a traditional worshipper.

There followed a pair of contemporary pieces: Arvo Pärt’s Nunc dimittis, (‘Nunc dimittis servum tuum, Domine’, or ‘Now thou dost dismiss thy servant, Lord’) written to sound well in an acoustic such as this, was expressed initially in phrases of small range, spiritual, but soon intensified with some urgent exclamations at triple forte in more complex harmonies.

John Tavener’s The Lamb, his setting of the Blake poem, was a good companion piece, from a composer commonly linked to Pärt by the title ‘holy minimalist’. Women’s voices opened in unison singing and then in piquant harmony; men’s voices join half way through, bringing the scene down to earth somewhat, with its steady line of undulating crotchets: one of his most popular and delightful works, this exquisite singing was a shift to a beautiful pastoral view of religious belief.

Two short motets by William Byrd (Tallis’s pupil) brought us back to the choir’s home ground; the Ave verum corpus (‘Hail, true body’ [of Christ]) uses the voices in alternating phrases to create a peaceful interlude, a genre known as a ‘gradual’, between parts of the Ordinary of the Mass. Dynamics rose and fell, rarely departing from the steady four-part writing throughout.

Laudibus in sanctis Dominum celebrate supremum (to give the first line in full; it’s a paraphrase of Psalm 150, ‘Praise the Lord’ or, to connect with familiar Latin versions, ‘Laudate Dominum’). More upbeat than the previous piece, the ensemble, starting with sopranos, and adding altos, tenors and basses one by one, sang with a certain grandeur and joyousness as conveyed in the repeated little five-note up-and-down motif, and making much of the complex rhythms.

The Forty-part Motet
The singers went off so that arrangements could be made for the arrival of the thirty additional voices to sing Tallis’s 40-part motet, Spem in alium (or in full, ‘Spem in alium nunquam habui praeter in te’ = ‘I have never put hope in other than you’).  Peter Phillips had told Eva Radich about the hazards of having to rely in the countries they visit on extra singers having been well coached, confessing to several minor catastrophes over the years. But he’d said he had no misgivings here, and indeed, apart from some quite expected a lack of complete clarity of diction, nothing went wrong. Here, much more than usual rests on the conductor in giving cues and keeping things in line; his task was relatively free of stress.

My first hearing of this, as well as, for example, the Missa Papae Marcelli, was from The Tudor Consort under Simon Ravens, whose inspiration for establishing his choir, which still flourishes, was undoubtedly the Tallis Scholars. At their concert in March 1992, I think in the context of the New Zealand International Arts Festival, it was in this cathedral, also jam-packed, the choir was driven to sing the entire work a second time as encore. It remains a moving and vivid memory.

(An aside: you’ll be fascinated to look at The Tudor Consort’s website which lists a complete archive of their performances since 1986).

I think I have heard at least one other performance in the intervening years but I cannot trace the choir or the time.

For the present Wellington generation however, Spem in alium became familiar to hundreds through the audio display at the City Art Gallery a few years ago when 40 speakers were arranged in a circle, each carrying one voice, though with slightly recessed sounds of all the others within range.

In addition to those performances, Wellington has been fortunate in having a sufficiently big population of knowledgeable music lovers to maintain several choirs that have made all the important renaissance music familiar to us.

So this audience knew what they were going to hear and were suitably enraptured. They clapped and stood, refusing to leave till the choir returned for a third time and repeated the last phase of the piece (from bar 104). Searching afterwards for somewhere to have a drink, at the only watering hole open nearby, Rydges Hotel, I ran into several people who’d been there; recognizing each other by programme in hand: all sharing Cloud Nine. This momentous experience was perhaps the most memorable musical event of the year.


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