The setting of Jeremiah's "Lamentations" by Thomas Tallis is one of the most beautiful configurations of sound ever devised by the human imagination. At least, it was last night in the Washington Cathedral when the Choir of King's College, Cambridge, came to visit, with a repertoire that spanned four centuries but spoke eloquently of continuity in a musical ideal.
Tallis (circa 1505-1585) was the oldest composer on the program, but this choir was already some 60 years old when he was born. Now it is 540, probably a bit more than the cumulative ages of its 16 boy trebles and 14 choral scholars who study at the university. Whether you consider it the oldest (historically) of the world's great musical organizations or the youngest (in the average age of its members) the King's College Choir is unique.
It is also much-imitated. But this concert, in precisely the right visual and acoustic environment, focused on its uniqueness. There are many fine boys' choirs, but there is, on the deepest levels of quality, only one King's College Choir. This uniqueness is a testimony not only to the depth and age of this group's tradition, but also to the work of its director, Stephen Cleobury.
In a thoughtful gesture to the American hosts of this tour, the only living composer whose work was sung was the American Dominick Argento. It was beautifully performed, but unfortunately illustrated the primary problem of cathedral music: passages sung fast and softly were almost totally lost in the cathedral's acoustics. Similarly, the brilliant wordplay in W.H. Auden's text for Sir William Walton's "The Twelve" could be enjoyed from the printed program but hardly understood in the audible sound. Loss of verbal clarity was not total; slow passages in simple harmonies sometimes emerged with striking definition.
In any case, indistinct syllables were a small price to pay for the marvels of tone produced by this choir, smoothed and burnished and curiously amplified by the cathedral's vaulted, echoing spaces. The intonation was at all times perfectly centered, the voices ideally blended, with a kind of precision in pitch that is unavailable on keyboard instruments. This was demonstrated in some of the modern pieces where the voices were accompanied by organ with results demonstrating that less is more. This does not reflect on organ scholar Richard Farnes, who played solidly in a Bach prelude and fugue, brilliantly in Messiaen's "Dieu parmi nous." The organ was excellent, but the glory of the evening was in unaccompanied human voices.