Listening to the recordings of the Tallis Scholars, one may wonder whether the group sounds that good live. The answer is yes, confirmed again during their latest visit to Washington on Thursday as part of the Fortas Chamber Music series at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. As they have done for more than 40 years, Peter Phillips and this British vocal ensemble continue to set the standard for the performance of Renaissance polyphony.
They do so in a way that is not historically authentic, putting female voices on the upper parts — generally sung by boys during the Renaissance — and often transposing the music into keys suited to mixed voices. But the results are so pristine, with gleaming intonation and ideally balanced sonorities, that it is hard to argue. Two longer pieces by 16th-century composer John Sheppard, “Sacris solemniis” and “Gaude, gaude, gaude Maria,” bristled with crunchy cross relations, dissonances that arise out of overlapping contrapuntal lines, and the sopranos soaring limpidly in the stratosphere.
The concert was focused on three movements of Thomas Tallis’s “Missa Puer natus,” a seven-voice setting of the Latin Mass Ordinary that the group recorded almost 20 years ago. This outing did not have the same uniformly massive feeling as that recording, with some sections taken at brisker tempos and in softer dynamics, especially effective in the pleading repetitions of the concluding “dona nobis pacem” line of the Agnus Dei movement.
There also were selections by Arvo Pärt, some of which I missed because of the traffic snarls caused by the lighting of the National Christmas Tree. This performance made the Estonian composer’s music, which the Tallis Scholars have just recorded for the first time, sound as good as it possibly can. Those trademark mesmerizing repetitions and sonorous, homophonic walls of sound were all carefully calibrated for maximum effect.
Downey is a freelance writer.