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Music Review

From Tallis Scholars, a masterpiece of polyphony

By Harlow Robinson
Globe Correspondent / April 4, 2011

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CAMBRIDGE — The dead pass on, but requiems live. The death of his patroness the Dowager Empress Maria of Spain in 1603 prompted Spanish composer Tomás Luis de Victoria to write his second, splendidly florid setting of the requiem Mass.

On Friday evening in the florid setting of St. Paul Church in Cambridge, the visiting Tallis Scholars under founding director Peter Phillips showcased Victoria’s masterpiece of Renaissance polyphony in a program celebrating the 400th anniversary of the composer’s own death in 1611. A requiem for a requiem-maker, as it were.

Victoria does not dwell on death as gruesome or depressing. His setting strives toward serene eternal light (lux perpetua) rather than lingering in the dark pit where bad people go. Woven in an elaborately varied six-thread tapestry, the music deftly juxtaposes solo recitation of lines of chant with various combinations of voices and surprisingly dissonant harmonies. Some lines of the text are repeated in slightly altered form, as if examining the same object from different perspectives.

For this concert, presented by the Boston Early Music Festival, the England-based Tallis Scholars fielded only 10 singers, five male (two tenors, two basses, and an alto) and five female (four sopranos and one alto). But what an opulent, full sound this team makes. If you close your eyes, you could think you’re listening to a chorus of 100. True, the resonant acoustics of St. Paul Church act like a huge amplifier, but the Tallis Scholars know how to make the most of their surroundings. Their enunciation was exemplary. Rarely will you hear the final consonant “s’’ (and the Latin text has many) delivered with such subtle precision. In the inserted funeral motet “My harp is turned to mourning,’’ they brought vivid color to the word-painting, but with simplicity and restraint.

So finely tuned and synchronized are the Tallis Scholars that occasionally they run the risk of slipping into automatic cruise mode. Unlike the Victoria Requiem, some of the more formulaic works in the first half (by Francisco Guerrero, Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla, Francisco de Penalosa, Alonso Lobo, and Sebastián de Vivanco) sounded almost canned. The opening set of two Guerrero pieces suffered from poor balance, the strong sopranos overpowering the male voices. But Phillips and his colleagues listened and adjusted as the concert progressed. By the time they came to Victoria’s requiem in the second half, they were singing as one, not 10.

Harlow Robinson can be reached at harlo@mindspring.com.

TALLIS SCHOLARS Presented by Boston Early Music Festival

At: St. Paul Church, Friday