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Music for the thinking ear

Berlin, 16 July 2022, 9:30 pm: The Tallis Scholars under the direction of Peter Phillips complete their major project in the Pierre Boulez Saal. They performed all 18 masses by Josquin Desprez in eight concerts over four days.

Peter Phillips and the Tallis Scholars after the performance of all Josquin’s masses in the Pierre Boulez Saal

An enthusiastic audience celebrated the 14 musicians with standing ovations. Even though I unfortunately only had the opportunity to hear the last two of the eight concerts, it was obvious that the series was a complete success. In conversations with other visitors, it was clear that the music reached the hearts of many people.

What were the reasons for this extraordinary success?

The concert programme

In a short speech after the concert, Peter Phillips emphasised the courage required to stage such an event. This courage referred not only to the Tallis Scholars themselves, but especially to those responsible for the Pierre Boulez Saal. Renaissance music is not very present in the concert halls of the world. The performance of 18 works of church music of about half an hour by a widely unknown composer with identical Latin texts is a great venture.

The concert series offered the rare opportunity to familiarise oneself with the diversity of Josquin’s masses in just a few days and to gain an overall view of this genre. Only in direct comparison do the masses develop a special fascination.

However, this is not the first time that Ole Bækhøj, the artistic director of the Pierre Boulez Hall, and his team have shown that they have the courage and vision to offer such concerts.

The Tallis Scholars

The Tallis Scholars are without doubt one of the finest ensembles for the performance of Renaissance music. They celebrate their 50th anniversary next year. They have rendered special services to Josquin Desprez: Between 1987 and 2020, they recorded all of Josquin’s masses and released them on a total of nine CDs. They have the experience to realise such a venture, even if the compression into four days (each afternoon and evening) must have been a great challenge for the ensemble.

On Saturday afternoon, the two Marian Masses De beata virgine and Ave maris stella were on the programme, while in the evening the “last” two Masses were performed, the Missa Mater Patris and the Missa Pange lingua.

The ensemble doubles each voice; in the alto, women’s and men’s voices are sometimes mixed. The many duets within the masses are often performed soloistically.

To enable the singers to perform in a semicircle, block E was removed from the wooden oval of the Pierre Boulez Hall.

The Tallis Scholars perform the demanding works with a perfect balance of voices, a full sound and a high degree of intonation. The style of performance and the acoustics of the hall allow the listeners to combine emotional and analytical listening.

My personal highlight was the Missa Mater Patris. It is based on the motet of the same name by Antoine Brumel. In contrast to other masses, this work is reduced to the essential, downright simple. Characteristic are the contrasting alternations between fragile solo passages (especially in the middle voices) and homophonic blocks full of sonorous sound. The highlight is the Agnus III: Josquin incorporates almost the entirety of Brumel’s motet into the middle voices and perfects it by adding frame voices. The composition seems unpretentiously light and simple, despite all its actual complexity. Even though dating Josquin’s works is incredibly difficult, the listening experience leads me to classify the Missa Mater Patris – quite subjectively – as a late work.

The media support

In conversations after the concert, it became clear that listeners with different listening expectations and previous knowledge had found their way to the Pierre Boulez Saal. For some it was their first contact with Josquin’s music, others were already experts in the field. Judging by the reactions, all were enthusiastic.

Responsible for this success was the preparation and marketing of the concert. The basis was a lovingly designed website rich in content. This offered everyone the opportunity to prepare extensively for the concerts. The idea alone of commissioning Shirley Athorp and Willem Bruls to produce an eight-part podcast deserves admiration.

All those interested were also able to take a look behind the scenes in a 47-minute video. A part of the rehearsals was documented. In addition, Peter Phillips introduces the singers in short interviews. A very nice idea, because this way one could get acquainted with the main actors of the concert.

Even without the 134-page programme booklet, which was excellent in terms of graphics and content, it was possible to familiarise oneself with the characteristics of the individual masses months before the concerts began. Everyone was thus able to put together their own programme.

The performance venue

The performance space designed by Frank O. Gehry is a stroke of luck for this music. The outstanding acoustic properties are the result of collaboration with Yasuhisa Toyota, one of the most renowned acousticians for concert halls. Among many other important concert halls, he is also responsible for the acoustics in Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie.

The centre of the hall is an elliptical stage. The audience seats are arranged around it. Since the oval tier is attached to the walls of the hall in only a few places and barely visible, a feeling of weightlessness results. This is reinforced by the music.

The vision for the conception of the hall was to focus on “music for the thinking ear”. For the concerts on Saturday, one can only say: “Vision completed”.

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