Tuesday 3 March 2015

Tintinnabuli - the music of Arvo Pärt through new ears

Tintinabuli - The Tallis Scholars
Tintinabuli - choral music by Arvo Pärt; The Tallis Scholars, Peter Phillips; Gimell Records
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 16 2015
Star rating: 5.0

Pärt's music performed with Tallis Scholar's familiar purity and vibrancy

Anyone who has been to a concert given recently by Peter Phillips and The Tallis Scholars (see my review of the October 2014 concert at the Cadogan Hall) will have heard them performing not only Renaissance polyphony but more contemporary pieces notably by Arvo Pärt. And the group celebrated its 40th anniversary by commissioning new works from Eric Whitacre and Gabriel Jackson and performing them alongside music by Pärt and earlier music.

Though the group is known for its groundbreaking performances of Renaissance polyphony, the relationship with contemporary music goes back a long way. Peter Phillips friendship with John Tavener led to recordings of that composer's works (see my review of their disc Ikon of Light). This new disc on the Gimell label of the music of Arvo
Pärt is the first contemporary music disc that the group has issued since 1984.

Entitled Tintinabuli, the music explores Pärt's choral music in this style, all of which post-dates Pärt's compositional crisis in 1968 to 1976, after which he simplified his style and developed the idiom for which he is well-known. The earliest work in the disc is the Sieben Magnificat Antiphonen (1988) and the disc also includes other major works Magnificat (1989), I am the True Vine (1996), The Woman with the Alabaster Box and Tribute to Caesar (both 1997), Triodion (1998), Which Was the Son Of... (2000) and Nunc Dimittis (2001).

The Tallis Scholars - photo credit Eric Richmond
The music on the disc was largely written for bigger choirs but Peter Phillips and the Tallis Scholars perform it all in their same style with just two singers per part and with their customary attention to purity of line and beauty of tone. This means that the majority of works on the disc are performed with 16 singers. This might seem a touch light for works like the Sieben Magnificat Antiphonen  premiered by the RIAS Kammerchor and Magnificat premiered by the Staats- und Domchor Berlin, but this belies the intense variation of volume and concentrated intensity that the Tallis Scholars bring to the works, so I certainly was not disappointed.

Renaissance polyphony rarely calls for singers to perform fortissimo, but here the choir projects with fabulous intensity yet still with their familiar clarity. As well as requiring weight the pieces on the disc require precision and, yes, a sense of line. Pärt's music and his trademark harmonies only work if the notes are placed to perfection. I have performed both the Magnificat and Sieben Magnificat Antiphonen in choirs, and I know how tricky it is to achieve the sort of accuracy and precision required. Just listen to the opening of the Sieben Magnificat Antiphonen where the soprano line is floated beautifully and the silences simply occur without disturbing the flow of the line.

But this disc isn't all icy perfection, the singers clearly relish performing the music and the performances have the right sort of vitality. This particularly comes over in works like Pärt's 'joke piece' Which was the Son Of..., simply a list of Christ's ancestors but which pokes fun at the way Icelanders (who commissioned the piece) organise family names.

Arvo Pärt's music was very much the start of a trend for contemporary composers to write music which was accessible to non-specialist ensembles and which could be sung alongside Renaissance polyphony. Peter Phillips feels that Pärt's music is particularly suited and on this disc he and the Tallis Scholars show that the very qualities which make their performances of Renaissance polyphony so memorable can be brought to bear successfully in works by Arvo Pärt. Certainly I would not want to be without the fine recordings of his music by groups such as Stephen Layton and Polyphony, where the increase in numbers (a chamber choir rather than a vocal ensemble) brings a sense of weight. But this disc forms and apt complement and shows that great music is not prescriptive and is capable of revealing itself in different ways listened to through new ears, which is exactly what Peter Phillips and the Tallis Scholars give us..

When at its best Arvo Pärt's music, with its combination of memorable melodies with drones and slowly changing harmonies, has a beautiful shimmer, and Peter Phillips and the Tallis Scholars achieve this with a combination of purity and vibrancy.

Arvo Part (born 1935) - Sieben Magnificat Antiphonen (1988) [13.28]
Arvo Part (born 1935) - Magnificat (1989) [7.13]
Arvo Part (born 1935) - Which Was the Son of.. (2000) [7.37]
Arvo Part (born 1935) - Nunc dimittis (2001) [5.49]
Arvo Part (born 1935) - The Woman with the Alabaster Box (1997) [5.29]
Arvo Part (born 1935) - Tribute to Caesar (1997) [6.50]
Arvo Part (born 1935) - I Am the True Vine (1996) [7.10]
Arvo Part (born 1935) - Triodion (1998) [13.47]

The Tallis Scholars
Peter Phillips
Recorded in the Chapel of Merton College, 2014
GIMELL CDGIM 049 1CD [67.06]
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