One of the most important services St. Louis Cathedral Concerts provides in its role as a presenter is to bring distinguished foreign choirs to sing in the spacious acoustic of the Cathedral Basilica. On Sunday night, that meant the best of the best: Britain’s Tallis Scholars.
They and founder-director Peter Phillips last visited St. Louis exactly a decade ago; this, the second stop on an 11-concert North American tour, was a welcome return. The small group of singers sounded fresh and clear-voiced throughout.
The program, “Metamorphosis,” was intelligently arranged, with four groups of liturgical texts in varying settings, from chant through the Renaissance to the contemporary.
The evening began with three Magnificats, Mary’s hymn from the Gospel of Luke. The first, in Latin and composed by Hieronymus Praetorius (1560-1629), set the tone for what was to follow from the choir: flawless musicianship, timing and blend.
Next came a straightforward, beautifully phrased English version by Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625); then it was back to Latin for the soaring lines and bell-like tintinnabuli of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt (b. 1935).
The next group consisted of five settings of the Lord’s Prayer, in English, Latin and Old Church Slavonic. First came the exquisite five-part English setting by John Sheppard (1515-1558), composed during the brief reign of Edward VI. It was followed by a deceptively simple version by John Tavener (1944-2013).
The Russian Orthodox tradition was introduced with the brief “Otche nash” by Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), a piece devoid of flash. Two very different Latin settings from the Renaissance concluded the first half: a sumptuous double-choir version by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-1594) and a glorious take on the text by Jacobus Gallus (1550-1591).
The second half began with four settings of “Ave Maria,” the angel Gabriel’s greeting to Mary: a Latin chant; a five-part version with an embellished text by French composer Jean Mouton (1459-1522); and two in Russian, a simple one by Stravinsky and more tintinnabulation from Pärt.
The final group used the Nunc dimittis, with five settings of the words of the ancient Simeon. First came a short but highly effective one by Gibbons. A lovely paraphrase of the text by Johannes Eccard (1533-1611) gave indications of the composer’s later influence on Brahms. One by Pärt provided an excellent example of his brand of mystical minimalism, and was a highlight of the program.
The setting by Spanish composer Andrés de Torrentes (1520-1580) alternated chant and polyphony and showed off the choir’s superb sopranos and basses. The official program concluded with an impressive version by Gustav Holst (1874-1934) for double choir, a fitting way to close.
Phillips and his choir may be the best at this repertoire in the world, giving a practically flawless performance; every singer — and every choir director — in town should have been there. Let’s hope it doesn’t take another decade to get them back to St. Louis.