By John Y. Lawrence
Early music fans got an early gift of the Christmas season on Sunday afternoon when The Tallis Scholars came to Hyde Park. As part of the University of Chicago Presents’ Howard Mayer Brown International Early Music Series, the storied vocal ensemble presented a program titled “A Renaissance Christmas” at Rockefeller Chapel.
The Tallis Scholars and conductor Peter Phillips, who founded the group in 1973, are often hailed as the preeminent interpreters of Palestrina. Thus, it was little surprise to find that composer at the center of the program, represented by his motet “Hodie Christus natus est” and his mass of the same name based on that motet.
Strewn among the Palestrina movements were two selections by William Byrd and two by the little-known composers John Nesbett and Hieronymus Praetorius. (Digging up lost treasures is something of a specialty for The Tallis Scholars.)
The Tallis Scholars tend to sing four- or five-part music, which allows them to assign two singers to each part. But much of the music on Sunday’s program was written for eight or more parts. What this means is that during the concert, the ensemble frequently functioned not as a choir but as a collection of soloists.
Given this fact, the sheer technical achievement on display was staggering: supernaturally pristine intonation from all ten singers and taut ensemble coordination from Phillips, even in the most complex of textures.