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The mildly pretentious title still grates a little, not least above a rather twee cover illustration of the Tallis Scholars nestling among assorted luggage in ‘just off on tour’ mode – but by and large this 40th-anniversary update of what Phillips wrote for the 30th is an entertaining read.

What We Really Do is part potted history of the Scholars (and their Gimell recording label); part insight into the world of the travelling ensemble and travelling conductor; and part collected thoughts of Peter Phillips on the challenges of ‘interpreting’ polyphony. For this reader at least, that third area was where the real interest lay – a harvesting of long experience of decision-making on the range of potential interpretative ingredients, given that the composers concerned offer barely a clue.

Equally engaging are Phillips’s reflections on the diversity of approaches to singing polyphony he has encountered while conducting choirs and ensembles around the world. It is intriguing to read that some of his most thrilling experiences have come in directing a group of partly operatically trained voices in Novosibirsk.

The addition of a new ‘on Tour 2’ chapter to supplement ‘on Tour 1’ will perhaps leave a few readers rather jaded overall with ‘what it’s like touring’ detail; and I could have done without another chance to read the chapter devoted to scholars in-jokes – although I’m sure this sort of thing goes down well with the ensemble’s huge fan club.

There are a good few pops at the music business (not least broadcasting organisations) to spice things up – but a touch of washing dirty linen in public about the mention of Phillips’s long stand-off with his forebear in polyphonic performance practice, David Wulstan. Some of the best writing comes in a selection of Phillips’s witty and perceptive contributions to The Spectator. That fan club will be delighted at the many photos (not least of the scholars recording at -8°c), plus the updated list of singers and a new summary of both commercial and broadcast recordings.

ANDREW GREEN Read the full review on Agora Classica


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