An artistic journey from Palestrina to J. S. Bach was the main thrust of this concert forming the opening event of The Keble Early Music Festival. In broad terms this 150-year choral traversal spot-lit the influence of Palestrina’s polychoral style and its ongoing development culminating in Bach’s contrapuntal mastery. Not so much Hannibal crossing the Alps but an entire musical inheritance carried north by Italian-trained musicians whose army of works, sacred and secular, were to form the basis of the Germanic Motet tradition. Let’s not bother to count the composers absent, Gabrieli and Monteverdi for starters, and focus on the arrival of Bach’s genius which was cultivated not in isolation but from a foreign template.
Led by Peter Phillips, The Tallis Scholars succeeded both in illustrative and musical terms, with superbly-chosen sacred works: a Motet and a parody Mass by Palestrina occupying the first half to underline an expanding harmonic idiom pervading northern Europe. The Tallis Scholars have this music in their blood, yet in Palestrina’s Confitebor tibi Domine and eponymous Mass their richly upholstered tones found little room for pianissimo. Their tone relaxed for the pleas of the ‘Kyrie’, and a quartet brought restraint to ‘Crucifixus etiam pro nobis’, but nowhere did they reach the edge of the dynamic radar. But that’s not to deny the group’s shapely phrasing and near-flawless intonation. Blend wasn’t always faultless, yet it was refreshing to hear differences in timbre from the two groups of five voices each.
From Palestrina’s uniformity, the shift “Towards Bach” was strikingly evident in the richer harmonic palette of Praetorius’s double-choir Magnificat IV. A more intimate mood was heard to impressive effect in his O Bone Jesu, its sighing phrases eloquently expressed and beautifully shaped by a soprano at “Eya, dulcissime” – a sublime moment almost capped by the flowing counterpoint of the “Amen”. Daring chromaticism caught the ear in Hassler’s Ad dominum cum tribularer, as did the madrigalian effects in Schütz’s five-voice psalm-setting Die mit Tränen säen, its alternating languor and joy creating a perfect marriage of words and music, and expressive harmonies enlivened his consoling Selig sind die Toten, which glows with awed rapture.
The evening was crowned by a sumptuous account of Komm, Jesu, komm (BWV229), its soaring lines and echoing exchanges conjuring the lofty galleries of St Mark’s Venice. With singing as luminous as this and surrounded by Keble College’s polychromatic brickwork the programme’s strapline could have been “Towards Heaven”. And, as an encore, Henry Purcell’s Hear my Prayer was also gloriously uplifting.