No group has done more to popularize Renaissance music than the Tallis Scholars, the British a cappella ensemble known for its impeccable intonation and blend. Before Tallis and other similarly focused groups arrived on the scene, interest in Renaissance music used to be reserved largely to academicians and esoteric record collectors. If the masterworks of that rich era have not exactly gone mainstream, they’ve certainly moved out of the shadows and gained thousands of enthusiastic fans.
For its Symphony Center Presents Special Concert on April 5 at the Fourth Presbyterian Church, 126 E. Chestnut, the Tallis Scholars will offer one of the group’s prototypical programs, mixing works by such giants of the period as Thomas Tallis and John Taverner with those of more obscure composers such as Alfonso Ferrabosco and Richard Davy.
Of the breadth of Renaissance music, “the choice is absolutely enormous, and that’s one of the exciting things for me,” said Peter Phillips, founder and director of the Tallis Scholars. “I collect things like a schoolboy and one of the things I collected right from the start were all these different composers I could read about the dictionaries but I’d never heard a note of.”
The Tallis Scholars began in 1973, when Phillips, an organ scholar at St. John’s College, invited members of chapel choirs from Oxford and Cambridge universities to join what was envisioned as an amateur Renaissance vocal ensemble. At that time, the fascination with early music was catching fire, especially in England, with the founding of at least two other famed groups that same year: the Academy of Ancient Music, led by harpsichordist Christopher Hogwood, and the Hilliard Ensemble, a Renaissance vocal quartet.
“I’ve always loved the sound of unaccompanied voices,” Phillips said. “I wanted to deal with just a cappella music. It didn’t have to be Renaissance absolutely, but then I got familiar with Renaissance style and I got to love that, too. So putting the two together, you’ve got a huge repertoire and nobody else was doing it really at the highest level consistently. It seemed like a quite obvious choice at the time — 1973. It was a brave new world.”
Although the group was active for more than a decade, it didn’t turn professional until the mid-1980s, when it really gained a name for itself. In all, it has performed more than 2,000 concerts worldwide and has released 62 albums, not counting reissues and compilations. “It’s certainly been a big part of getting this music around the world,” Phillips said of the group’s recording activities. “I don’t think any other group has sold so many discs of Renaissance polyphony. I consider that to be very important.”
The Tallis Scholars records on the group’s own label, Gimell Records, which Phillips and Steve Smith established in 1980, when boutique recording companies of that kind were still rare. Its name is a variation on “gymel,” a Renaissance compositional term. “It’s where the parts are twinned, and it tends to imply that this is the good bit,” Phillips said. “We love those gymel sections.” Helping to boost the ensemble’s international reputation has been the many honors its albums have received, including the 2011 inclusion of Gregorio Allegri’s “Miserere mei, Deus” on the BBC Music Magazine’s list of the 50 greatest recordings of all time. The ensemble’s last three recordings, including its most recent, an album spotlighting Taverner’s Missa Corona spinea, have all reached No. 1 on the United Kingdom Specialist Classical Chart.
The Tallis ensemble usually tours with 10 singers, of which eight are full-time core members. “That gives me flexibility to have two singers, which may not be of the same voice part,” Phillips said. “I could have two extra sopranos, which is the normal format. Or I could have two extra tenors to join the eight, who are already there.”
Until around 2005, most of the core singers had been with the group for some 25 years, but the lineup has significantly turned over since. The longest-tenured member is contralto Caroline Trevor, who has sung with the ensemble since 1982. “Her voice hasn’t aged in any perceptible way,” Phillips said. “She’s great.” For larger works, such as Tallis’ 40-voice motet, Spem in alium, the group draws on a stable of about 80 trusted free-lance singers.
Throughout its history, the ensemble has championed overlooked composers such Manuel Cardoso, Jean Mouton and Jean Sheppard while becoming the first to record significant works by celebrated composers, as it did with its recent release of the Taverner mass. “We’ve more or less been give carte blanche to sing what we believe in, and the audiences will come along,” he said. “That’s the great privilege of the position we’re in.”
Along with its central Renaissance speciality, Russian Orthodox works by Sergei Rachmaninov and Igor Stravinsky as well as contemporary selections are part of the group’s repertoire. The latter are typically pieces that the group has commissioned from carefully chosen composers such as Eric Whitacre, who are willing to adapt themselves to the group’s layered, a cappella style. “There are other composers like Arvo Pärt, who hasn’t written anything for us directly, but whose music just suits us really well,” Phillips said.
It’s important, Phillips believes, that new works fit the kind of otherworldly mood that characterizes Renaissance music. New York Times critic James Ostreich pointed to just such a confluence of feeling when the group performed a Pärt composition during a concert late last year. “Perhaps the quality Mr. Pärt most shares with those ancients is imperturbability, in music that hovers above the text in its own world of sound and contemplation,” Ostreich wrote.
The April 5 program, which the singers also will perform in nine other cities as part of an American tour, opens with William Byrd’s Laetentur coeli and continues with a complete performance of Taverner’s Missa Western Wynde, which Phillips called a “terrifically good piece.” Before concluding with Byrd’s Vigilate, the second half will showcase two pairs of settings, each centered on a different text. Each of the two couplings will feature examples by a famed and nearly forgotten composer, starting with two versions of Salve regina by the widely known Byrd and little-known Davy.
“It’s good ruse,” Phillips said of the pairings. “It goes down well, and the public gets the text twice, so they can make immediate comparisons and get to know something they didn’t know before.”
Kyle MacMillan, former classical music of the Denver Post, is a Chicago-based arts journalist.