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Ensemble defines real excellence

The Tallis Scholars’ Christmas Concert, December 6, 2012

The Vancouver Sun

by David Gordon Duke

Vancouver possesses an enthusiastic and committed choral scene, something well understood at this festive time of the year. But the latest Chan Centre performance of the Tallis Scholars for Early Music Vancouver proved both a pleasure and something of a reality check: a demonstration of truly fine singing, a selection of wonderful repertoire, and that elusive extra quality that defines real excellence.

The British ensemble’s 2012 program was bookended by two settings of the Magnificat by roughly contemporary figures: Sebastian de Vivanco (1551-1622), who worked in Spain, and Hieronymus Praetorius (1560-1629), who hailed from Hamburg. The motet Osculetur me and the extended Missa Osculetur me by Orlandus Lassus (1530-1594) formed the sophisticated core of the program, rounded out by shorter works by Arvo Part and Thomas Tallis.

Each time we hear director Peter Phillips’s distinguished group of 10 singers, there are new things to discover and treasure. The sound – despite inevitable personnel changes over almost four decades – is consistent: very, very pure sopranos, a certain emphasis placed on the somewhat reedy altos and tenors, and an incomparable overall blend of voices. Though the ensemble’s sonorities are immediately recognizable, its subtle, responsive sense of style gave each work on this commendably intense program its own particular universe of sound.

The musical raison d’être of the program was the infinitely nuanced contrapuntal mastery of Lassus, music of exquisite intricacy delivered with astonishing concentration. Yet it was the Praetorius work, with charming old Christmas tunes interpolated into a flashy proto-Baroque setting, that provided the evocative climax to a program that ranks as one of the treats of this pre-holiday season.

Sat Dec 8, 2012