Peter Phillips on what makes his choir tick and preparing the for their anniversary Australian tour.

Your Australian tour features many of your ‘Greatest Hits’. With so many to choose from, how did you decide on the program?

Actually, there aren’t many hits on the scale of the Allegri Miserere or Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli in our repertoire. The Whitacre – which was a commission for our anniversary – chose itself. After that I had to make up interesting, balanced programmes centering on Byrd and Tallis, as you might expect.

You are also singing a rare mass by Hans Leo Hassler. Can you tell us something about him and why you’ve chosen this work?

Hassler came into our work by virtue of being German – there are surprisingly few Renaissance composers of German upbringing. Some years ago we wanted to show where Bach got his love of polyphony from, and had to look quite hard. Schütz – whose wonderful Magnificat, his swansong, we are also singing – was an obvious choice, but the 16th century proved more difficult. Initially I feared that this double choir mass was just another run-of-the-mill chordal exercise in double choir writing, but after a single run-through I realised it has extraordinary depths. The last page of the Agnus dei is quite remarkable.

These days you include contemporary music by the likes of Arvo Pärt, Eric Whitacre and Gabriel Jackson in your programs. Is this a new direction for the group?

I have always thought that a certain kind of modern music might throw an interesting light on the Renaissance repertoire – for years this strand was represented in our programmes by John Tavener. He and the three composers you mention have a particular affinity to a cappella singing, and are at ease setting Latin. Pärt is especially suited to being put alongside someone like Tallis, since they both have a strong religious sense – and they use, or at least imply, silence well. However I do not intend that this modern element should take over – one or two contemporary pieces maximum in a programme, if any.

When you started out 40 years ago as undergraduates, did you have any idea that you would become the benchmark by which all other English Renaissance choral groups are measured?

None whatsoever! We were 19-year-olds with a rather esoteric sense of fun. Whole concerts of Renaissance music were very rare in those days.

Apart from yourself, are there any ‘original’ members still in the group?

No, the original members were all amateurs and undergraduates. However by 1982/3 we had acquired the first professionals who eventually made the group famous (and toured Australia on that first Musica Viva tour of 1985).

You clearly made a decision right at the start to use women’s voices rather than boys. Why was that?

I don’t particularly like boys’ singing; and I realised from the start that touring with children was a practical impossibility in the kind of schedules I wanted to have. Remember boys’ voices broke much later in the 16th century, as late as 18, halfway through their lives in many cases. There is no question of losing an authentic sound by employing 21st century women to replace 16th century boys.

When and why did you introduce male altos into the group?

They were there from the start. I didn’t use female altos until years later, as my wife, who is now the long-term female alto in the group but was made to sing soprano for some time, will tell you at length!

Would you say the group’s famous sound has changed over the years and if so, how?

I would say the basic sound has remained the same, but got more powerful and so more expressive. I formed an ideal sound in my head in 1973 and have been trying to capture it ever since: the same every concert. The group sings louder than it did years ago, but we have learned how to do this without losing the necessary focus which polyphony requires. That has been a real advance in technique.

How would you say your own approach to the Renaissance repertoire has changed in 40 years?

I have explored it more and more widely, and become more experienced in understanding how it works. It is a very subtle art-form, which certainly deserves a life-time spent going into small detail with it. This also applies to pieces everyone knows well – like the Tallis Lamentations or the Missa Papae Marcelli. After hundreds of performances I am still honing my understanding of them.

Josquin is clearly one of your favourite composers. What draws you to him and how much of his music do you hope to record?

I hope to record all his masses, of which there are probably 17. That will be a career-long project, since the first disc was made in 1985. He was simply the most imaginative composer of his time, able to stand alongside later giants like Beethoven, with whom he is sometimes compared these days.

Last year you introduced us to the beautiful music of Jean Mouton, a composer little represented on CD. How did you know that he would be ‘a find’?

I have endless faith in the Franco/Flemish composers, and there are many we haven’t heard of. Mouton was highly respected in his lifetime, and we all knew his miraculous setting of Nesciens mater – the one piece by him we did know. So I took a punt. I think it is one of the most significant and enjoyable tasks of The Tallis Scholars to put before the public the music of geniuses of whom they know nothing. If we hit gold every time as we did with Mouton, we will have left a crucial legacy.

Are there other lesser-known figures whose music you hope to record? 

Potentially there is no end to what might be discovered in the Flemish school: Lheritier, Crequillon, Verdelot, Festa (an Italian), Phinot, Agricola, and countless more. And then there are the unknown works of the great composers…Palestrina set the Mass 107 times. We may have sung 25 of them in our 40 years!

The Tallis Scholars tour to Brisbane, Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne from October 25.