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The Tallis Scholars: Heinrich Isaac at 500

An exceptionally fine exploration of four Renaissance composers’ loveliest music.

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The Tallis Scholars (Photo credit: Nick Rutter)

[avatar user=”Jean Ballard Terepka” size=”96″ align=”left” ] Jean Ballard Terepka, Music Critic[/avatar]The Tallis Scholars’ most recent turn in the Columbia University Miller Theatre Early Music Series was billed as “Heinrich Isaac at 500.” This concert title wasn’t quite accurate: the evening was a more like a bouquet of music by Isaac (c.1450-1517) and three contemporaries, Josquin des Prez (c. 1450-1521), Nicolas Gombert (c. 1495-1560) and John Browne (1453-c. 1500). – What a fabulous bouquet it was!

The Tallis Scholars have a large and loyal following: here in New York City, their performances at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin have happily packed audiences, filled with classical music fans and knowledgeable early music specialists. For this “Heinrich Isaac at 500” performance, Tallis was at its very best: the group’s brilliantly and carefully cultivated scholarly accuracy provided revelation of composers’ identities rather than mere pedantry of period music performance protocols.

The concert opened with three Josquin pieces, beginning with a clear, clean and joyful Gaude virgo. This was followed by an exceptionally poignant and subtly developed Stabat Mater. The singers’ enunciation was so precise that long syllables could be stretched for the depth of their emotion without any compromise to a disciplined tempo. The attacks on the first lines of the last two stanzas were so perfectly controlled – “Fac me” – as to be terrible, and terribly beautiful, wails of anguish. Similar successfully conveyed emotion characterized Josquin’s Absalom fili mi, an intimate, and technically virtuosic, exposition of grief.

In a fine programming plan, Josquin’s Absalom fili mi was followed by Gombert’s Lugebat David Absalom, the chronologically latest piece on the program. Whether or not Gombert was a Josquin student, Lugebat continues to develop a Josquin-like musical vocabulary of emotional expression.

The first half of the program ended with Isaac’s ravishing Optime divino, a celebratory motet of savvily crafted political optimism. The anonymous librettist’s flattering and rhetorically dexterous description of the meeting of a chancellor and a pope gave Isaac material for a richly complex motet of opulence and power: the music has the feel of modernity in the making.

The Tallis Scholars (Photo credit: Nick Rutter)

The concert’s second half began with the English sturdiness of Browne’s Stabat iuxta, a work in which voices operate in layers and accumulate a musical sound of remarkable density: experiment and conservatism seem like partners in Browne’s writing.

At this point, Tallis’ founder and conductor, Peter Phillips, announced to the audience that an additional song was being added to the program: a secular German chanson by Isaac was light, lilting and very lovely.

The published program then continued with Isaac’s gorgeous Tota pulchra es, a reverential praise-song for the beauty of the Old Testament King Solomon’s beloved. Isaac’s writing combines sensuous lyricism with rhythmic virtuosity as voices follow, anticipate and flirt with each other: experiments in harmonies and pacing are as audacious as the mixing of profane and sacred loves.

The last two pieces were Josquin’s Inter natos mulierum and Gombert’s Regina Caeli a 10, each piece more lovely than the one before it. The concluding “Ora pro nobis, alleluia,” presented in great sweeping layers of sweet sound and celebration, was entirely splendid.

This was a particularly beautiful Tallis concert: at the core of each of the four composers’ art was a quest for new ways to make music both servant and liberator of texts’ intentions. They were all men at the palpable, exciting edge of rapid, interconnected changes in both the creative arts and Europe’s geopolitics, and the Tallis singers, in this performance, conveyed their own close and joyful alertness to this particular historical moment.

The Tallis Scholars: Heinrich Isaac at 500 (December 6, 2017)

Columbia University Miller Theatre Early Music Series

Church of St. Mary the Virgin

145 West 46th Street, in Manhattan

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Running time: 110 minutes with one intermission

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