Tallis Scholars/Phillips, Symphony Hall, Birmingham

Symphony Hall, Birmingham

The two works in this Tallis Scholars concert, although separated by over four and half centuries, were given their UK and world premieres tonight. Nicolas Gombert's Missa Tempore Paschali was written in the first half of the 16th century in a style that represents Renaissance polyphony at its grandest and most highly wrought. Based on Easter plainchants rather than motets or chansons, the mass has as its most striking feature the tight and intricate interweaving of the voices.

Achieving a dancing lilt in the triple-time sections, director Peter Phillips maintained remarkable clarity: even in the closest of the 6-part harmony, the frequent dissonances emerged with sometimes startling effect. Gombert set a second Agnus Dei for no less than 12 individual parts, further enriching the textures. With the Scholars accordingly doubled to their full complement of 24 voices, this produced an unforgettable sound, the ripples of overlapping lines resonating with a sensuous beauty.

Pairing the mass with John Tavener's Tribute to Cavafy had a piquancy that the early-20th-century Greek poet might have appreciated. Gombert was exiled from emperor Charles V's chapel and condemned to the high seas for violating a choirboy; Constantine Cavafy's homosexuality effectively lay behind his self-imposed exile in Alexandria.

Adding five poems to the setting of Cavafy's poem Ithaka, Tavener's tribute embraced the Hellenistic culture that was Cavafy's prime inspiration, though his typically nostalgic eroticism coloured the opening poem, Days of 1903. Vanessa Redgrave's narration had a certain prosaic dignity, which chimed with the chorus's austerity, but it was the halo of bright sound provided by mezzo Sarah Connolly that shone out. Whether Tavener ultimately reflected what WH Auden described as Cavafy's "unique tone of voice" is more open to question.


Rian Evans

The GuardianTramp

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