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Posted on Fri, Feb 17, 2012 : 8:19 a.m.

Tallis Scholars offer thrilling sounds of 'Renaissance Mavericks'

By Susan Isaacs Nisbett

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It’s always a thrill and a pleasure to hear the instrument that is the 12-voice a cappella choir the Tallis Scholars, directed by Peter Phillips.

The group’s Thursday’s appearance at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church, presented by the University Musical Society, was no exception. If anything, the concert, focused on “Renaissance Mavericks,” surpassed expectations. The evening was extraordinary in scope, expressivity and the sheer beauty of both repertoire and execution.

Gesualdo’s “Tenebrae Responsories for Holy Saturday” was the main exhibit, its nine verses constituting, at around 35 minutes, the entire first half of the program.

The music, meditating on the Passion of Christ, is arresting, constantly taking surprising harmonic turns, exploiting extremes of register and rhythm, of calm and agitation. And yet, it never forsakes a sense of measure as somber verse succeeds somber verse. Perhaps it’s that combination that makes it so moving. That, and of course, the singing itself, so clear, so balanced, so true and perfectly tuned.

The text of the “Tenebrae Responsories” stops short of Christ’s resurrection, and the program’s second half, consisting of a variety of short works by other Renaissance mavericks, continued to hew closely to the theme of death. That didn’t preclude variety—some of which came through ensembles of different sizes and vocal composition—nor was it in any way depressing.

No, death was a pleasure in this program, robed in the chromatic colors and expressive musical language of Lassus (“Timor et tremor”), de Wert (“O mors quam amara est”) and Apenzeller (“Musae Jovis”). Zielenski’s “Vox in Rama,” in which Rachel laments her lost sons, was devastating in its simplicity and text setting.

Not all was gloom and doom, or at least, pardon the pun, not more and more “mors.”

Four of the men gave a stunning account of de Rore’s “Calami sonum ferentes,” translating misery with unsettled and unsettling harmonies and harmonic progressions. And for a chromatic translation of transfiguration and mystery (as in “Behold, I tell you a mystery”), it would be hard to surpass Gallus’s rising, light-filled “Mirabile Mysterium.”

For the resurrection that is the sequel to the Gesualdo “Tenebrae Responsories,” the audience had to wait till the program’s end, with Monteverdi’s devastating “Adoramus te,” radiating the sweetness of salvation.

The encore was Antonio Lotti’s 10-voice setting of the “Crucifixus.”