Tallis Scholars pay tribute to a Spanish ‘Genius’
‘The Genius of Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548—1611)’’ was a natural title for the Tallis Scholars’ Boston Early Music Festival concert Friday evening at Jordan Hall. This year marks the 400th anniversary of the Spanish composer’s death, and the Scholars, celebrating their 38th year under founder Peter Phillips, had a recent Victoria album, last year’s “Lamentations of Jeremiah,’’ on which to draw.
Yet though their pure, austere tone and pellucid counterpoint have become the benchmark for performances of Renaissance polyphony, the agony and ecstasy of this El Greco of sacred-music composers is not a good fit for singers who favor clarity over emotion and tend to sublimate the text. On record, at least, Harry Christophers’s the Sixteen are more empyrean, and David Hill’s Westminster Cathedral Choir offers real flesh and blood. At Jordan Hall, the Scholars ultimately made their point, but it took a while.
The program itself was an odd liturgical duck. The Christmas motet “O magnum mysterium’’ and the Mass of the same name (both with just eight singers, two to a part) and the “Salve Regina’’ occupied the first half of the evening; the second was given over to the Pentecostal motet “Dum complerentur’’ and the “Lamentations for Holy Friday’’ and then two compositions by one of Victoria’s contemporaries, Sebastián de Vivanco, “Sicut lilium’’ and “Magnificat octavi toni.’’
The “Alleluia’’ of the “O magnum mysterium’’ motet was careful to a fault, the Mass that followed a thing of pallid beauty. When the two sopranos who had sat out these pieces joined in, the sound became richer. Still, in “Dum complerentur,’’ the fire of the Holy Spirit flickered only intermittently.
But their “Lamentations for Holy Friday,’’ the only piece on the program proper that the Scholars have recorded, was a somber suit of black velvet with slashes of celestial light. And they made a strong case for Vivanco: Their double-choir give-and-take animated the “Song of Songs’’-based “Sicut lilium,’’ and in the “Magnificat,’’ they reveled in the contrast between plainchant and polyphony, becoming downright exuberant in the “Deposuit potentes de sede; et exaltavit humiles.’’
The one encore, touted by Phillips as “the smash hit of the 1580s,’’ was Francisco Guerrero’s “Ave Virgo Sanctissima,’’ a piece with forward-looking, almost Mannerist accents. The ensemble remained as crystalline at the end of the evening as it had been at the beginning.
Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at email@example.com.