Tuesday 19 March 2013

Strikingly dignified grave beauty - Tallis Scholar's recording of Eric Whitacre's Sainte-Chapelle

Eric Whitacre & Peter Phillips Photo: ©2013 Clive Barda
Eric Whitacre & Peter Phillips
Photo: ©2013 Clive Barda
Eric Whitacre's Sainte-Chapelle was commissioned by Peter Phillips and the Tallis Scholars to celebrate the group's 40th anniversary. Premiered on 7 March 2013 at St Paul's Cathedral (see my review of the concert), the group has recorded the piece in the chapel of Merton College, Oxford and released it as a digital download. The choir's first recording of a contemporary composer since 1984 and their first ever digital download.

For the text, Whitacre turned to long time collaborator Charles Antony Silvestri. Silvestri has produced a modern Latin text which, essentially secular, allows Whitacre to involve the various styles of music for which the Tallis Scholars is famous. The 'plot' involves a young girl going into the Sainte Chapelle in Paris and hearing the angels in the stained glass windows singing the Sanctus. The text is structured in a series of stanzas, each finishing with the Sanctus.

It opens with the men singing chant, developing into beautifully harmonised chant, finally they are joined by the women for the Sanctus. And it is here that we really get the standard Whitacre tropes with his use of bitonality and closely harmonised chords. The second stanza has the women singing material related to the men's, before being joined by the men for the Sanctus. Then the final stanza is for full choir, bringing added richness to the text before the final Sanctus gradually evaporates.

Despite some rather rich bitonal textures, the work has a certain austerity and gravity, helped by the dignity of the Tallis Scholars' performance. Lasting a little under 9 minutes, the piece is beautifully structured with a great use of silence and sparse textures. Recorded in the chapel of Merton College, the acoustic allows us to appreciate Whitacre's use of silence more than the lively St. Paul's acoustic of the premiere. 

The Tallis Scholars under Peter Phillips give a masterly performance. Whitacre's is a style of music which responds to the sort of clarity and purity which the Tallis Scholars bring to their early music; long held unwavering pedal notes, perfectly placed chords and biting harmony all within a fine sense of line and an ensemble which refrains from blending all voices together into a bland mush.

I have to confess that when I first heard the work I thought that Silvestri's text implied the possibility of closing with a repeat of the men's opening material. Repeated listening to the recording confirms me in this view.

The effect of the St. Paul's acoustic at the premiere of the work as quite striking, the long reverberation time had a big effect on the textures. So it would be illuminating to be able to compare the two.

Whitacre has crafted a magical piece which evokes just the right response in Phillips and the Tallis Scholars. They make the work sound effortless and imbue the whole with a strikingly dignified grave beauty.

Further information from the Tallis Scholars website, their recording can be downloaded from iTunes.
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