For the Secrest Artists Series‘ finale, the Tallis Scholars made a welcome return to the Piedmont region of our state, appearing in Wait Chapel at Wake Forest University. They presented a broad survey of Renaissance a capella music by five composers, alternating eight and ten superb singers. The moderate period of reverberation of Wait Chapel proved ideal, conveying the spatial aspect of this repertoire while allowing for the maximum clarity of vocal lines.

The succinct program notes by Greg Skidmore were excellent and managed to cover the highlights of the composers’ pieces and style with remarkable clarity. The Tallis Scholars’ program presented five composers from diverse nationalities — Italian, Flemish, and English — and amply demonstrating what Skidmore calls “the variety with which the basic compositional ideal of vocal polyphony was interpreted” across Europe and across time.

Born in Cremona, Italy, Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) was greatly influenced by the Flemish composer Giaches de Wert, whose musical approach was to match the mood of the verse while carefully following the natural declamation of the words. Sixteenth-century counterpoint tried to adapt innovations in secular vocal music into theory. Following Wert’s approach, and using chromatic madrigals as a model, Monteverdi took liberties in progression, harmony, and mode. The art of improvised vocal counterpoint climaxed in the prima prattica style. The Tallis Scholars chose Monteverdi’s Messa a quattro voci da capella (1650) to represent this older style. Eight singers were used for this simple piece for four voices; the work is abstract, with a rich variety of vocal texture, but still retains clarity of vocal lines at all times. Homophonic writing accentuated certain passages, but the composer’s more modern style was represented by long, descending, repeated sequences.

Where Monteverdi affected the older style in his Mass, two works by Giovanni Pierluigi Palestrina (1525-94) represented the purest form of Renaissance polyphony. A subtle, emotional quality is welded to an austere simplicity with remarkable clarity. “Peccantem me quotidie” is a setting of the responsory at Matins for the Office of the Dead. Its thick texture is interrupted by near-homophonic assertions of “Timor mortis” (“The Fear of Death”) and “Miserere mei Deus” (“Have mercy on us, O God”). Harmonic expression is combined with careful exposition of the text’s meaning. “Dum complerentur,” a setting of the first responsory at Matins for Pentecost, bursts forth full of energy, according to Skidmore, “making use of largely homophonic rhythmic writing and varying textures in an almost polychoral style, blended with florid, scalar blasts of counterpoint.” Palestrina’s interjections of “Alleluia” made for a striking effect.

After intermission, the sequence of the printed program was abandoned as director Peter Phillips took the opportunity to draw attention to the unique sound-world of the little-known English composer John Browne (c.1480-1505). The New Grove Online article by Roger Bowers reveals doubtful documentary elements in the composer’s biography. Bowers asserts that “Browne is representative of the English florid style of composition not only at its most assured but also at its most imaginative.” About the Tallis Scholars’ selection, “Stabat juxta,” Bowers writes, “Few closing periods approach… in poignancy of the setting of (its) ‘gradia’ ending.” This piece has as its cantus firmus tenor voice a secular song composed to celebrate Prince Arthur taking up his duties as Prince of Wales. Browne’s intense scoring for six men’s voices fully justified Phillips’ description of the composer’s style as “rhapsodic.”

Flemish composers Orlando de Lassus (1532-94) and Nicolas Gombert (1495-1560) were juxtaposed by performing their settings of the same text, “Media vita in morte sumus.” According to Skidmore, de Lassus’ scoring “sets up a strict long-note cantus firmus construction,” emulating an older style, “but the contrapuntal ingenuity of the five other voices attests” to de Lassus’ mastery of the later style “as each voice loosely imitates the general contour of the chant, sometimes in canon with the tenor, sometimes with freely written melodies.” Gombert’s earlier version, composed for six low voices, has rich, thick textures and relentless complex thorough counterpoint with suggestions of false-relation dissonances.

Gombert’s biography is forever darkened by a contemporary rumor that claimed he molested a boy and was sentenced to exile on a ship in the Mediterranean. Allegedly, he composed eight Magnificat settings, one in each of the eight church modes; they were of such excellence that they secured his early release. “Magnificat IV,” which ended the Tallis Scholars’ program, was astounding, with long sections of dense polyphony, marked with audible points of imitation. By adding two more voices to the last verse, the texture was made even denser. The ensemble performed the entire program with extraordinary purity of timbre and tone, precise intonation, and exactly matched phrasing. The Tallis Scholars have set the performance bar very high, indeed!