Classical review: Tallis Scholars, St George's, Bristol

St George's, Bristol

Choral music at this time of year almost invariably means performances of the Bach Passions, or perhaps, if someone is feeling a bit more adventurous, one of the earlier Passion settings by Victoria or Lassus. But for their Easter week programme, the Tallis Scholars were more enterprising. When Peter Phillips, the group's director, was browsing through a music shop in Ljubljana, he discovered a St John Passion by one Jacobus Gallus - who was born in what is now Slovenia, and lived in central Europe in the second half of the 16th century - and made it the centrepiece of this beautifully conceived and executed sequence.

Gallus's treatment of the Latin text from St John's Gospel is nothing if not compact. The work lasts barely 12 minutes including a brief coda, not taken from the apostle, that reflects upon its message. There are no soloists; the eight-voice choir is divided into two groups, high voices and low, with the lower ones representing Christ, and the higher the other characters in the story, with the two groups joining together to represent the crowd who demand Christ's death. It's gravely beautiful, restrained music, with few moments of mobile counterpoint and more matter-of-fact syllabic writing, and the Tallis Scholars delivered it with poise and intensity.

They are a remarkable group, perfectly matched in tone and unfaltering in their intonation, qualities that made the rest of the programme an unqualified pleasure. In the wholly British first half - anthems by Purcell, followed by Orlando Gibbons and Robert White's Lamentation settings - the mood was sombre; after the Gallus there was music by Palestrina and Lassus's ravishing Media Vita, before the concert ended with William Byrd, his bleak Ne Irascaris followed by the gleaming optimism of the Easter antiphon Haec Dies.


Andrew Clements

The GuardianTramp

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