CAMBRIDGE — Celebrating their 40th anniversary, 25 consecutive years of visiting Boston, and, by director Peter Phillips’s count, 44 concerts presented under the aegis of the Boston Early Music Festival, the Tallis Scholars brought to St. Paul Church Saturday a program called “Renaissance Music for the Holiday Season.” It was surprising to see 19th-century Austrian composer Anton Bruckner on a bill of Renaissance music, even if he did look back to that era and earlier (some of his modal motets seem almost medieval). And the program itself didn’t entirely represent this holiday season. Settings of the “Ave Maria” by Bruckner and Tomás Luis de Victoria and Philippe Verdelot’s “Beata es, Virgo Maria” were appropriate in that they honor the mother of Jesus. But Victoria’s “Dum complerentur” is a Pentecostal motet, Francisco Guerrero’s “Maria Magdalene” is about the Resurrection, and Verdelot’s “Sint dicte grates Christo” appeals to St. John the Baptist, patron saint of Florence, during that city’s 1529-30 siege.
Ever since their landmark 1980 recording of Palestrina’s “Missa Papae Marcelli,” the Tallis Scholars have been a touchstone of Renaissance polyphony. Yet their high, pure, austere approach is not the only legitimate way to sing this music. London’s Choir of Westminster Cathedral, with larger forces and greater reverberation, produces a warmer, fuller sound in Palestrina and Victoria. Boston’s Blue Heron, an ensemble of about the same size as the Scholars, is somewhat earthier and more focused on words and meaning.
The lineup of 10 who came to a packed St. Paul opened with “Dum Complerentur,” which the Scholars sang at Jordan Hall when they performed as part of the 2011 Boston Early Music Festival. The tongues of the Holy Spirit flickered more brightly this time out; the reading was fiery, even vehement. The Victoria Mass that followed, his “Missa Gaudeamus,” was equally intense, but the four piercing sopranos overpowered the other six singers, the text was barely intelligible, and paragraphing, apart from pauses before the “Incarnatus” and “Crucifixus” of the “Credo,” was subtle. Even the triple time of the “Cum Sancto Spiritu” in the “Gloria” hardly registered.
THE TALLIS SCHOLARS. Presented by Boston Early Music Festival.
There were good moments after intermission: the surging “ora pro nobis peccatoribus” in the Victoria “Ave Maria,” and the “surrexit” revelation of the Resurrection in “Maria Magdalene.” But the Bruckner “Ave Maria” — his second, from 1861 — was brash, almost neurotic. And the encore, John Tavener’s “The Lamb,” did little to convey the words of the William Blake poem from “Songs of Innocence.” The Tallis Scholars weave a hypnotic aural tapestry, but over two hours, its diamond-like brilliance can be a little hard on the ears.
Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at email@example.com.