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Happy Birthday, Arvo Pärt, from The Tallis Scholars

TintinnabuliThe Tallis Scholars’ tribute to one of my favourite composers, Arvo Pärt, in his 80th year, is a beautifully executed performance of some of Pärt’s shorter choral works

Pärt is a deeply reflective composer. Many of his compositions are intensely transcendent, mystical, numinous. He is unostentatious, there is little flamboyant, bravura, glamorous expression, and perhaps because of that ability to strip to a sparse and sometimes simple core his works are profoundly intense.

The Tallis Scholars, under the direction of Peter Phillips, like Pärt himself, get their individual personality vocals out of the way, and let the music itself sing, apparently effortlessly.

My only cavil is a curious one, to do with programming and the generous length of the CD itself.


Because most of Pärt’s works, even the lightest, have such a powerful intensity it became (for this listener) too overwhelming to listen straight through to 8 works, as most of them left me rather reeling in an altered state.

Back in the old days of vinyl records, the limits of equipment and disc meant that a record was around 20 minutes maximum per side, and listening rather became structured into a roughly 40 minute whole, with a half way break to turn over. But because CDs can be far longer, the buyer can have a feeling of being cheated at paying the same price for a 40 minute CD as for a far longer one, so there is a subtle push coming from the buyer wanting more for their buck, and producers, compilers and the like stuff the package more fully. And sometimes pieces, however well written or performed, do feel like ‘fillers’

This was certainly the case for me here. There are some standout pieces, and a more modest CD length might have lost 2 or 3 of the works, and kept every piece as a stunning, shining jewel. It isn’t that any of the works are poor, it is that some of them are exceptional and I rather wanted all of them to be so. I would have lost Which Was The Son Of, The Woman With The Alabaster Box and Tribute to Caesar.

The opening 7 movement Sieben Magnificat Antiphonen is surely one of the jewels. Tallis use 2 voices to each of the vocal lines. This particular piece effortlessly rings with Pärt’s trademark ‘tintinnabuli’, those bell like overtones, the close, beautifully on the edge of discordance, edgy close harmonies. There is something about this kind of harmonic work which, every time, tugs the heart, and causes tears to flow. Some kind of impossible longing for musical resolution, whilst also staying within what is unresolved.

The bookend piece which closes the CD, Triodion (the opening and the closing pieces are the longest by far, each about 13 minutes) is another, different, stunner. The text of this piece is in English. Most of the pieces – all sacred texts, or extracts from the Bible, are in Latin, and the CD comes with a good liner, giving the texts in several translations

In Triodion, which must surely have been fiendish to perform, though Tallis do it Arvoseemingly without strain and effort, Pärt overlaps and opposes rhythms and sung lines in the same way that he usually does with the harmonics. He creates a dynamic with those tight, unusual harmonies which are more familiar in some of the Eastern European countries than in Western European music, and here the addition of the pleasing and diverging entry points to the sung lines is delicious, a kind of tease and tickle to the eardrum which made me shiver with delight

These two pieces in particular are the ones which draw me in, to listen and experience most closely.

I hope Arvo appreciated his tribute from Tallis!

Arvo Pärt – Tintinnabuli – The Tallis Scholars Amazon UK
Arvo Pärt – Tintinnabuli – The Tallis Scholars Amazon USA