CD Review: ‘Tintinnabuli,’ performed by the Tallis Scholars

Named for the composer’s singularly recognizable compositional style, the new album by the Tallis Scholars is a celebration of Pärt's 80th birthday.

Arvo Pärt music example.
Still from YouTube video describing the sound and compositional technique of Arvo Pärt. (Entire video available below.)

CHICAGO, April 23, 2015 – It is difficult to believe that there was a time not so long ago when good performances – let alone quality recordings – were very difficult to come by when it came to the music of Arvo Pärt, now the world’s most performed living composer.

Yet in the tumultuous time following his forced emigration from his native Estonia to Austria, Pärt struggled to find accurate and demonstrative performances of his music. It would be the thorough and loving treatment of his music by the Hilliard Ensemble that would finally bring about the validation of Pärt’s new “Tintinnabuli” style, launching a worldwide aesthetic phenomenon in the classical world.

Growing out of his early encounter with Gregorian chant music, Pärt’s Tintinnabuli style also mimics the meaning of its Latin source (“a bell”), where human voices create a ringing and luminous sound with a deceptively simple surface that conceals its deeply complex – and reverently taut – interior.

This is a sound world at once painfully immediate but with the capacity to create a blurring wash of tonality, not unlike the effect of listening to bells ringing constantly for many minutes at a time. Borne of his struggles with Communism, academic modernism and other dominant ideologies of his era, Pärt’s work emerges as a searingly simple and unique statement of humanistic opposition.

In its simplest form, Pärt’s Tintinnabuli style involves two voices: the first arpeggiates a triad or (in later years) a seventh chord, while a second voice moves diatonically. (For non-musicians: one voice outlines a repeated chord, while another moves more melodically, or in a linear manner.) This leads us to Pärt’s famous mystical formulation of 1+1=1, as the voices together form a true unity from which no meaningful extraction is possible.

Pärt has continued to evolve his style since the late 1970s to include greater harmonic motion and complexity along with the addition of more voices, though the essential undulating nature of his style remains.

It is also notable that in an increasingly secularized culture, whose values are reflected in a growing sentiment opposing authentic sacred music, Pärt’s Tintinnabuli style is capable of breaking down such irrational prejudices. In the process, Pärt’s output proves the continued relevance of these old Christian texts and “dead” liturgical languages along with our shared spiritual patrimony.

This composer’s work is hardly a dead letter. Rather, it is like a living spring of renewal, serving to witness and affirm the permanent newness of the ancient texts. This may explain why Tallis Scholar’s director Peter Phillips so often programs Pärt’s music alongside that of the Renaissance masters, whose work also often springs eternal.

Named for the composer’s singularly recognizable compositional style, the new album by the Tallis Scholars (Gimell: CDGIM 049) is a celebration of Pärt’s 80th birthday as well as a retrospective of his compositional career.

Director Peter Phillips approaches Pärt’s music in the way that he might a Renaissance era master: in a sparse ensemble, in this case two voices to a part. Notoriously difficult to sing even in the security of larger numbers, it takes a truly gifted and well-practiced group to execute such an assignment. The Tallis Scholars seem to take to it with ease.

While the compositions presented on this recording will be intimately familiar to Pärt’s fans, there is a new immediacy in the Tallis Scholars’ interpretations, which clearly makes them worth owning.

For example, “Which was the Son of…” has an entirely fresh and vulnerable air, while the alternating consonances and brittle dissonances of “Magnificat” take on a piercing clarity. There is a particular closeness in “The Woman with the Alabaster Box,” while “Triodion” sparkles with reverent energy.

One can only assume that maestro Pärt will be pleased with this recording, as its combination of lightness, accuracy, and interpretive detail results in a truly transcendent performance.

As the years pass and definitive recordings from the compositional lifetime of Arvo Pärt are studied with an eye toward future interpretations, this effort by the Tallis Scholars will surely be on many a “scholar’s” list of must-have albums. For ensemble and conductor, no greater compliment can be given than that of a performance being “authoritative.” And for Pärt fans, this is the newest essential and authoritative recording of this unique composer’s works.

RATING: **** (4 out of 4 Stars)

In the following video, Peter Phillips introduces the new album from The Tallis Scholars featuring Arvo Pärt’s finest works for unaccompanied voices, demonstrating the sound and style created by the composer’s philosophy and techniques. Tintinnabuli was released by Gimell in March 2015.

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