Sounds of the Renaissance Revisited

The sacred music of the Ren aissance — unaccompanied voices singing ornate counterpoint — would seem, on the face of it, an enthusiasm for the academic few, but Peter Phillips and his Tallis Scholars are enchanting multitudes. They tour widely, and even have their own best-selling record label. Unlike many other laborers in the Earlie Musicke vineyard, Phillips is no pedant, seeking to bring back the past by perpetuating what is merely obsolete. Women sing soprano with the Tallis Scholars, not boys (as the Church, not musical necessity, once ordained). The first requirement of the material is accuracy of intonation—a requirement the singers fulfill to a degree bordering on the preternatural. Even more impressive is their tone: instead of the sharp, pinlike brilliance of rival madrigalists, they offer a smooth pearlescence, voices gliding one against the next like streams of liquid light and darkness visible. In music of such as Tomkins, Allegri, Palestrina, and Byrd, not to mention Tallis—masters the world at large would be content to pass by but for them—the Tallis Scholars open vistas on a sublimity not of this earth. Their current tour includes dates in Stanford, Seattle, Birmingham. Nashville, New York. Boston, and Toronto. For the informative brochure of their recordings, on the Gimell label, call Harmonia Mundi (310-559-0802).

Austin Baer is a writer based in New York.