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Heavenly choir; hellish war

Tallis Scholars mark WW I centenary for EMV @ Chan Centre

Grace notes. Photo: Tallis Scholars

In their 45-year career to date, Britain’s Tallis Scholars have become world-renowned as definitive interpreters of Renaissance polyphony. Our own Early Music Vancouver (EMV) series has hosted them a dozen times at local venues since 1988, most recently at the Chan Centre this past weekend for a medley of War and Peace texts compiled to commemorate the centenary of the World War I armistice. 

The ensemble’s 10-voices meld so perfectly that it almost seems like a single organism miraculously resonant in a whole range of pitches and timbres. But, like any compound organism, its component cells undergo change and renovation over time. Of the Scholars on Sunday’s Chan Centre stage, musical director Peter Phillips – the only non-singing member – was also the sole recidivist to have come back for all 12 of the group’s Vancouver engagements.

And no wonder; it was Phillips that first founded the Scholars as an Oxford undergraduate. To this day, he still dictates the repertoire. As a conductor, commands rapt attention from his singers.

Not that he conducts with an iron hand. His gestures, rather, are light and fluttery, cradling each new tone in his fingers like a connoisseur of sonorities. No metronomic downbeats; renaissance music, after all, is written in continuous lines, not divided into measures. Even Phillips’ costume – a longish frock coat with velvet collar facings – looks kind of antique, although it’s hard to say from just which past era.  

The same historic fluidity informs his choice of music. He’s built the War and Peace programme around the framework of a traditional Catholic mass, but compiled from “a pastiche of movements” (according to the concert’s advance publicity).

Most are culled from war-themed Renaissance compositions. But he also draws upon such contemporary a capella masters as Estonia’s Arvo Pärt and the late Anglo-Orthodox luminary John Tavener.

He opens the program with an anonymous 15th century street song, L’Homme Armé, whose message (“the armed man is to be feared”) was as salient in its war-torn era as in our own. The cautionary ditty’s theme was taken up in a Missa by the leading sacred composer of the time, Josquin des Prez.

Such borrowings were common practice in the Renaissance. We’re treated to Josquin’s Kyrie from the Missa L’ Homme Armé, and then to a Gloria by his 16th century successor, Francisco Guerrero.

The Gloria also draws on a popular chanson, but with a very different mood and feel. Guerrero’s source material is a fleur-de-lys flag-waving rouse by Janequin, complete with onomatopoetic renditions of the jolly clangour of battle.

For a return to sobriety, Phillips fast-forwards to contemporary minimalist Arvo Pärt’s spare setting of a Gospel text. The narrative recounts how Jesus’ disciples upbraid a woman for “wasting” money to anoint Our Lord rather than giving to the poor.

But Jesus defends her on grounds that “the poor are always with you, but me ye have not always.” Bottom line: it’s worth spending some time, attention and treasure to celebrate the all-too-transitory passage of our dear departed from the field of this-wordly action.

This thought segues into a pair of selections from funeral motets, one each by Jean Mouton and Alonso Lobo. Their eloquent grief far outlasts any personal particulars of the Renaissance grandees they were ostensibly set out to memorialize.

We then return to Guerrero’s Missa Batalla for a triumphant – even death-defying – Credo that concludes the first half of the programme with the ringing affirmation exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum (“I await the resurrection of the dead”).

The more subdued latter half begins and ends with passages from the late Renaissance Spanish choirmaster Tomás Luis de Victoria’s Missa pro Defunctis. We open with his sombre Requiem and then brighten into the Sanctus from Guerrero’s Missa L’Homme Armé.

This oxymoronic blend of joyful solemnity carries through in the second of the contemporary pieces that Phillips has spliced into the War and Peace programme, Sir John Tavener’s Song for Athene. Its climactic line, “Weeping at the grave creates the song: Alleluia,” was a memorable highlight of Princess Diana’s 1997 funeral.

Then back to the Renaissance for an Agnus Dei from Palestrina’s polyphonic tour-de-force, the Missa Papae Marcelli, before concluding the concert with the fervent Libera me from Victoria’s Requiem.

The whole programme is, of course, impeccably performed – we’d expect no less from such a definitive ensemble. And Phillips himself has brilliantly curated the selections for a compelling sequence of thoughts and moods. Maintaining the framework of a Catholic mass, the movements reflect the elusive hope of Peace, as well as the illusive glamour and all-too-real pathos of War from the 1500’s through the 1918 Armistice and right down to our own times.

So it was a bit jarring when Phillips and his singers paused after each segment to smilingly receive audience applause. Not exactly what you’d expect in a formal Missa, nor even in a recording on the ensemble’s proprietary Gimmel label. To my ear, at least, it gratuitously vitiated the carefully constructed momentum of the programme.

But these are Scholars, after all, not church choristers, and the Chan Centre is no cathedral but rather Vancouver’s consummate secular venue. And there’s no doubt that the ovations were abundantly well-deserved; the packed house was unstinting in its applause.

Long after the last strains of Victoria had faded, the Tallis Scholars’ exquisite sonorities linger in the mind – as do the ineluctable historic legacies of the century-old “War to End all Wars.”

Just goes to show that les hommes armés, like the poor, are with us always.

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