Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis
Alice Tully Hall
Hieronymus Praetorius: Magnificat II and V; Three Motets
Dietrich Buxtehude: Missa alla brevis
Heinrich Schuetz: Four Motets
Johann Sebastian Bach: Komm, Jesu, Komm
Peter Phillips (director)
On my former radio station there was an hour each week devoted to a cappella music of the 15th and 16th centuries. I tried very hard to tune in because this seemed to me to be the time most totally invested in the sheer beauty of sound. One of the groups featured was the Tallis Scholars and I was always struck by their purity of tone and acoustic. Doing a little research, I learned that this dedicated group’s leaders own their own recording company and therefore exercise total control over their finished marketed product. Choosing to record mostly in a remote country church in Norfolk, they are able to concentrate on just the proper mix of blended sound without any interference from the noisy outside world. Vocal music of the Renaissance (not to be confused with the renascence, a totally English phenomenon) has, in modern times, become almost the exclusive province of the United Kingdom (it was these same Tallis Scholars who sang at the opening of the newly restored Sistine Chapel seven years ago) and this loving husbandry has spawned a bountiful harvest of old wine in new bottles. As the Mostly Mozart festival evolves, it no longer feels the need to dwell only in one small corner of the musical world (although some apologist has labeled this concert as “sacred music in Germany before Mozart” in the brochure) and this year we are being feted with concerts from all periods of classical music (as opposed to only Classical music).
Although the festival is primarily an Avery Fisher event, this particular arcane art is much better served in the intimate setting of Alice Tully. I was pleasantly surprised to see a sellout crowd, what with the present combination of brutal summer and musical esoterica. The patrons who braved the sub-Saharan heat were richly rewarded by a dedicated group of supremely cool musicians. Shuffling themselves at each interval like players in Stravinsky’s Jeu de Cartes, these ten singers dazzled with the cleanliness of their sound, each acting in turn as human pitchpipes to ground their colleagues for the next auditory commencement. This music is so old that it sounds ultramodern, putting me in mind most especially of the choral music of Webern. It is thrilling to hear these deliciously dissonant passages and easy to see the genesis of such daring leaps as those which color the most adventurous nineteenth century music, the Adagio from Bruckner’s Symphony # 7 for example. When I studied composition in the 1960’s, it was still forbidden to write in parallel fifths. As a result, listening to this type of free voice leading can only be classified as a guilty pleasure. We owe our cultural heritage to the codifiers of music during the Enlightenment, but much that was beautiful and spiritual was lost in the zeal of regimentation.
For me, the most moving piece was the Praetorius motet O bone Jesu, but all of this music, except for the rather prosaic Schuetz, was superb. The performance was consistently first rate. It is hard to imagine a better blending of these lovely voices. A final crisp Christmas carol left us fortified for the unbearable but inevitable walk to the subway.
Frederick L. Kirshnit