Arts & Events

Tallis Scholars Shine in Music Inspired by The Sistine Chapel

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Saturday April 06, 2019 - 04:14:00 PM

The Tallis Scholars, long recognized as the world’s leading exponents of Renaissance sacred music, offered on Thursday evening, April 4, a program of music inspired by the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel. Peter Phillips, the group’s founder and director, announced from the stage that this was the nineteenth time The Tallis Scholars were performing in Berkeley’s First Congregational Church, the first having been in 1989. Hearing The Tallis Scholars perform sacred works by Renaissance composers who had close associations with the Sistine Chapel was a rare treat. The a capella polyphony of the ten Tallis Scholars vocalists was transcendent. one might even say, trance-inducing. 

Peter Philips designed the program by featuring five individual movements from diverse sacred works by Giovani Pierluigi da Palestrina (Italy, 1525-1594).. Interspersed among the Palestrina pieces were works by such composers as Cristobal de Morales (Spain, 1500-1553), Costanzo Festa (Italy, 1495-1545), Elzea Genet Carpentras (France, c. 1470-1548), Gregorio Allegri (Italy, c. 1582-1652), Alexander Campkin (England, b. 1984), and Josquin des Prez (Flanders, c. 1450-1521).  

As the program opened with the Kyrie Eleison from Palestrina’s Missa Assumpta est Maria, I was momentarily taken aback by the sheer volume of sound produced by the vocalists. Two microphones suspended from the ceiling hung down in the shallow space between the stage and the audience, and the music seemed at first to be over-miked. Moreover, high sopranos and strong tenors tended to overwhelm the mid-range voices. Yet somehow I quickly became used to the volume, and as the program developed, I began to hear the altos and basses whose lower voices added much to the varying colors of the music. The Regina caeli of Morales was beautifully sung, as was the Gloria from Palestrina’s Missa Ecce ego Johannes. I especially enjoyed the Quam pulchra es from Costanzo Festa, performed by a reduced grouping of three women and one man, the latter a soft-voiced tenor. Then came what was for me a highlight of the concert, Lamentations by Elzea Genet Carpentras, based on the Lamentations of the prophet Jeremiah. This work, sung by five men and one woman, featured gorgeous melismas, the musical equivalent of Jeremiah’s weeping and wailing. The Credo from Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli closed out the first half of the concert 

The program’s second half opened with yet another highlight, Gregorio Allegri’s famed Miserere, a work so closely associated with the Sistine Chapel that its score was never allowed outside the walls of the Vatican. However, as a result of centuries of alterations and improvised embellishments by singers, the work itself was handed down in less than authentic fidelity to the original score. Nonetheless, it is a strikingly beautiful work, one featuring divided choirs plus a soloist. For this performance, Peter Philips had the second choir, made up of four women and one man, sing from the foyer at the back of the hall, while the first choir sang from the stage. The soloist, a tenor, sang from stage-right. The dominant feature of this Miserere consists of a single soprano voice repeatedly soaring high above the other voices in verse after verse. The effect here was truly transcendent. 

In the work that followed, a Sanctus & Benedictus from Palestrina’s Missa Confitebor tibi domine, all ten vocalists of The Tallis Scholars brought out the varying colors of the music. Next came the sole contemporary work, the lovely Miserere est from English composer Alexander Campkin. This work, a loving tribute to Allegri’s Miserere, also features divided choirs and a soaring soprano voice. However, it begins with a low, grumbling sound from the basses, recalling to my ear the sacred music of the Orthodox Church, Greek or Russian. This fine work closed with contrasting high and low notes on the two syllables of the Latin word tuan.  

Josquin des Prez has often been called Renaissance music’s super-star. This Flemish composer was much sought-after throughout Europe, and his stay in Rome is memorialized in the name “JOSQUINJ” he carved with a knife in the woodwork of the chorus stalls of the Sistine Chapel. For this concert, Josquin was represented by Inter natos mulierum, a paen to John the Baptist. The printed part of the program closed with the Agnus Dei from Palestrina’s Missa Brevis. To enthusiastic applause, The Tallis Scholars performed an encore of a ten-part Crucifixus from Antonio Locris. Whether you are religious or not, this program of Renaissance polyphony sung by The Tallis Scholars was nothing short of heavenly.