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Tallis Scholars and Folger Consort Together Again

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The Tallis Scholars
Sing William Byrd

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Taverner, Missa Gloria Tibi Trinitas, Tallis Scholars
The first time that the Tallis Scholars performed in the United States, it was on a concert with the Folger Consort, twenty-five years ago this past weekend. After the planned guest choir for this year's Folger Consort Christmas program, the Augsburg Cathedral Choir, had to cancel because of visa issues, the Tallis Scholars agreed to replace them. (I was happy to break the news in the Washington Post, where at the end of a review of another Folger Consort program, I called it "one of the most fortunate performer substitutions in recent memory.") The somewhat heterogeneous program at times seemed like it had been cobbled together, as if selections from the originally planned concert were fitted in between pieces the Tallis Scholars were ready to sing. A few minor blemishes notwithstanding, this was an extraordinary performance, and a Christmas concert of discoveries rather than dreary revisitings to boot, heard on Saturday night at Georgetown University's Gaston Hall.

Not much of the concert featured the ten singers of the Tallis Scholars on their own: just a mammoth Taverner motet (Gaude plurimum -- for Marian feasts, possibly specifically for Assumption, judging by the quotation of the Assumpta est Maria antiphon at one point) and Byrd's somber Nunc dimittis, neither of which is technically proper to Christmas. In the latter piece, the arching phrase "Lumen ad revelationem gentium" cycled several times through the various voice parts, providing an ingenious example of the intelligent type of singing that makes the group so good, performance that benefits from the understanding of form and compositional technique. Gaude plurimum showed that the group's sopranos have nerves of steel, flying high as the treble part is often so distant from the lower parts. Most of the selections that combined voices with instruments -- viols, recorders, lute, organ or harpsichord -- were even more pleasing, especially two unusual Christmas anthems, Orlando Gibbons's See the word incarnate and Byrd's From Virgin's Womb. The latter -- which I have studied in score but never heard performed live -- alternates between a low treble solo and a four-voice, all-treble quire, or refrain, in rollicking triplets. Even better, although the Tallis Scholars have recorded music by these composers, this was the first time their performance of these pieces reached my ears.

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Tom Huizenga, In the end, Tallis Scholars rock the Renaissance at Gaston Hall concert (Washington Post December 13)
Two settings of the Hosanna filio David text, derived from an antiphon proper to Palm Sunday (the shouts of the crowd as Jesus entered Jerusalem), by Gibbons and Weelkes, could conceivably apply to Christmas, although there is no liturgical tradition of such an association. In both versions, the sound of the instruments and voices together blossomed in fullness. That conclusion was preceded by a rare piece of liturgical music by Henry Purcell, a setting of Laetatus sum (Psalm 121, I Was Glad) -- written not for Christmas but for the coronation of King James II. Between laughing lines expressing joy and an intensely contrapuntal doxology, the words "O pray for the peace of Jerusalem" were set to austere homophony, a pious entreaty. The instrumental selections, at their best, added rhythmic zest to the program, as in the charming romp of Purcell's Hornpipe on a Ground and the pairing of an ornamented instrumental version of the tune Greensleeves with a simple, shortened performance of Thomas Ravenscroft's Remember O thou man. The overwhelming heat in the hall, counteracting a very cold night, played havoc with the intonation of the instruments, in spite of lengthy attempts to tune them. William Billings's Judea made for a merry encore.

Violinist Julie Andrijeski leads a Baroque instrument orchestra for the Folger Consort's New Year concert (January 7 and 8), which brings together several sets of instrumental pieces that depict the four seasons.

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