The Renaissance specialists on their 40th birthday tour are ideally heard in ecclesiastical surrounds.

St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, October 27

If, like me, you feel that you’ve grown up on Peter Phillips and the Tallis Scholars, the realisation that this trip to Australia is a part of their 40th birthday celebrations is potentially a painful reminder of the rapidity with which the years fly by. Not that I was listening to them in 1973 when they were a bunch of eager undergrads with a dream, but by the early 1980s, their iconic ‘sound’ had begun to define one of the ways in which early music might be realised in the 20th century. Other groups like Gothic Voices or the Huelgas Ensemble might offer a saltier, more edgy tang to the voices, but the Tallis Scholars vaunted purity of tone was always there to seduce you back after the gritty verisimilitude of their more ‘authentic’ rivals.

So how is it 40 years on? This Sydney Opera House Utzon Music Series concert turned out to be a near ideal way of experiencing the Peter Phillips approach, relocated due to the anticipated noise from the Opera House’s own 40th birthday bash to the calmer environs of St Mary’s Cathedral. I say near perfect because the audience awkwardly turned out to exceed the 1200 tickets sold for the event and only the series subscribers in the reserved pews at the front and a few of us lucky enough to spot a potential sightline on the side would have been able to see the performers. I’m tempted to say though that that needn’t have mattered. What counted was the sound, and the 3 second reverberation in St Mary’s was tailor made for this music, most of which was originally written to celebrate the Christian tradition in some of the world’s most revered centres of worship. Despite the occasional roar of a passing bikie and some frankly avoidable door-banging from staff, the singers had free rein to produce that ravishing tone by the bucketful in a program that played to all of their strengths.

The choir comprised a flexible line-up of six to ten singers and were hard to fault in any way, except possibly to say that the men’s blend was marginally less effortless than the flawlessness of the women – and that is being really picky.

The program offered a range of Renaissance greats beginning with a rapt account of Tallis’ Loquebantur variis linguis, one of those polyphonically sophisticated gems that represent the high Tudor period at its most mystical. The overlapping lines and spicy false-relations were a delight in the ecclesiastical acoustic, heard, I’m sure, exactly as the composer intended. Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli followed, a Tallis Scholars speciality, clean and satisfyingly simple, yet with Phillips shaping each movement to perfection to bring out the emotional ebb and flow.

The second half began with a stunning aural account of the Allegri Miserere. If the work has begun to feel ubiquitous on record, try hearing it as it was here, in a resonant cathedral, with the SSAB choir placed well behind the main SSATB group. Those laser-like top Cs raised the hairs every time.

Eric Whitacre’s commission for the Tallis’ 40th, Sainte-Chapelle, was a simple tale of a young girl hearing angels singing in stained glass. It turned out to be a highly attractive blend of medieval simplicity with more florid, expansive and pungent 21st-century harmonies, especially in the final ecstatic Sanctus section. A fine addition to the motet repertoire that should easily find champions interested in taking up something new and catchy.

William Cornysh’s superb Magnificat ended the program, which with its varied sectional trios, quartets and thrilling melismatic climax made a heady finale to a concert that was a textbook example of how to make ancient sacred music feel spiritually alive and relevant in a modern world.

The Tallis Scholars play Melbourne Recital Centre, October 29 and Peter Phillips interview for Limelight is available here.