Historic site, historic sounds: the Tallis Scholars were in town again on Sunday
night, performing their superb repertory of Renaissance liturgical music, and
also performing their familiar miracle of cleansing the ears and raising the
spirit with the pure beauty of their singing.
This was the Scholars’ third visit, always under the aegis of MaryAnn Bonino’s
“Chamber Music in Historic Sites” series, this time at Pasadena’s handsome
neo-Gothic Westminster Presbyterian Church. The space was somewhat smaller than
last year’s venue (the First Congregational in downtown Los Angeles) and the
sound may have been a shade drier. But the gain was in clarity, the chance to
hear the contrapuntal lines in a Palestrina mass and a Lassus motet curl
gracefully and insinuatingly around one another.
Conductor Peter Phillips had chosen a program in keeping with the season, but
rewarding in any season. Anyone still under the delusion that all Renaissance
choral music sounds alike should have learned otherwise from the juxtaposition
of different composers’ settings of the same text: William Byrd’s quiet,
profound setting of “O magnum mysterium,” for example, against the simpler,
childlike setting by Palestrina. Clearly, the spectrum of musical styles was as
broad four centuries ago as it is today.
And anyone still deluded that early music is all dull and slow must have been
warmed and undeceived by the vitality of the ten-member Tallis group. Their
aim, since their founding in 1978, has been to recreate the authentic spirit,
rather than merely the sound, of old music. That, to Phillips, obviously means
letting go at times, of overstating, say the marvelous interplay of rhythms at
the end of the Gloria in the Palestrina “Ut re me fa” Mass, the crown of
Sunday’s program, to make its proper joyful noise.
And so, Phillips’ work is full of meaningful rhythmic liberties, all in the
quest for vitality. His choir includes women’s voices — five, against five
men, this year — because they are easier to put in tune than the customary
boys’ voices. The effect of his music-making, and that of his marvelously in-
tune small chorus, is to propound the gospel that, above all, early music can
be fun. Sunday’s concert, before a sold-out church, was fun all the way.

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