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Hyperion Records

CDA67668 - Pitts: Alpha and Omega
The Burning Bush by Blandine van Noordt-Grauer
http://paintings-blandine.site.voila.fr / Photo by Harry Jonckheere
CDA67668

Recording details: June 2007
Bromley Parish Church, United Kingdom
Produced by Stephen Rice
Engineered by Mike Skeet
Release date: February 2008
Total duration: 67 minutes 59 seconds

'Tonus Peregrinus is proving to be one of the most skilful vocal groups around. Its composer/founder/director demands much from his singers, which they accomplish with impressive fluency and musicality. Pitts shows considerable ingenuity and flair in his settings of sacred texts, which include The Peace of Jerusalem, Sanctus and Benedictus, A Thousand Years and the totally captivating My Dove. The outstanding work is The I AM Sayings of Jesus, which Pitts constructs using various combinations of voices and intervals from the unison to the octave, but never in a mathematical sequence. The moods range from the austere to the ecstatic, from the simplistic to a dissonant but ordered turmoil—it's a remarkable achievement' (Choir & Organ)

'The beauty of the choir's sound is as impressive as its technical accomplishment, doing full justice to their director's fascinating, inventive compositions' (BBC Music Magazine)

'A disc worthy of serious attention … this is a most successful recording, Tonus Peregrinus never wearied by the vastness of its task and the vision of Christ always palpable in the composer's creative insights' (International Record Review)

'The singers of Tonus Peregrinus are exquisitely blended. There is a purity to the three female singers that is very effective in its evocation of reverent piety … textures are magnificently managed … Francis Brett is the superb bass soloist … a winner' (Fanfare, USA)

'This music strives for, and frequently succeeds in expressing a state of astonishing, soaring, feral ecstasy. Pitts' work frequently includes dense chromatic harmonies that in other contexts might sound raw, but when sung, are complex, but warm, even lush. He may flirt with a reassuring, familiar sentimentality, but he never succumbs to it, and the effect is bracing. On the other hand, his music is never so uncompromisingly dense that it loses the listener; it's rooted in triadic harmony and has an undeniable emotional directness that never leaves the work's meaning in doubt … in the double quartet that he conducts, Tonus Peregrinus, Pitts has assembled an ensemble for which he can write with impunity. Their ability to negotiate the music's extreme demands is staggering, and they do it with wonderfully pure tone, warm blend, and impassioned expressiveness. Pitts is a composer to watch out for: these remarkably assured and compelling works should be strong interest to any fan of contemporary choral music' (AllMusic, USA)

'The principal work on this programme is the 'I AM' sayings of Jesus which at 40 minutes makes up almost two thirds of total playing time. The comforting yet perplexing texts allow Pitts free reign to express his vivid word painting and the music is also informed with great restlessness and agitation. The other four works are similar to the main opus but each has its own distinct message to convey. Tonus Peregrinus are a capable choir, founded by Pitts himself to promote the Christian message and they perform with spellbinding excitement matching spirituality with technical prowess. This is a sumptuously beautiful disc on all counts' (Classical.net)

'Pitts's gestures are highly expressive, fresh-minted by the words, without cliché … performances are by the utterly brilliant, and utterly fearless, choir Tonus Peregrinus' (Oxford Today)

'A winning combination of choir and composer and a triumphant recording' (Cathedral News)

Alpha and Omega

There are few better examples of a composer’s style developing concurrently with the emergence of a vocal group than in the a cappella vocal music of Antony Pitts. The Tonus Peregrinus octet exists to perform ancient and modern works interspersed with music written by its director. The two-way influence between consort and composer is palpable. The resulting compositions are as much theological statements as stand-alone pieces of music and as such they bear comparison with some of the monuments of, for instance, the music of the English Reformation. Specific musical germs such as false relations and the use of carefully controlled dissonances to create suspensions provide obvious aural connections with the music of the sixteenth century. But there are other musical devices such as medieval hocket, psalmodic chanting, jazz-infused rhythmic cells, and close-harmony effects which combine to create a simultaneously antiquated yet modern musical style.

Building on the success of their first Hyperion release Seven Letters, this disc contains contains further dazzling, ecstatic, arresting, thought-provoking works, sung with limpid beauty by Tonus Peregrinus.


Other recommended albums
'Liszt: Missa Choralis & Via Crucis' (CDA67199)
Liszt: Missa Choralis & Via Crucis
'Dohnányi, Schoenberg & Martinů: String Trios' (CDA67429)
Dohnányi, Schoenberg & Martinů: String Trios
'Handel: Alexander Balus' (CDA67241/2)
Handel: Alexander Balus
'McCabe: String Quartets Nos 3, 4 & 5' (CDA67078)
McCabe: String Quartets Nos 3, 4 & 5
'Sure on this shining night' (CDA66920)
Sure on this shining night

Introduction  EnglishPerformance note
There are few better examples of a composer’s style developing concurrently with the emergence of a vocal group than in the a cappella vocal music of Antony Pitts. The Tonus Peregrinus octet exists to perform ancient and modern works interspersed with music written by its director. The two-way influence between consort and composer is palpable (see also Seven Letters and other sacred choral music, Hyperion CDA67507). The result is a broad palette ranging from delicate ensemble filigrees to full-voiced choral effects: its fulcrum is the Christian message expressed by a selection of texts taken from the Bible and the liturgy. Calculated naivety and intense sophistication co-exist, and the effect on the listener is arresting and sometimes deliberately disturbing. Every musical gesture arises straight from the words and their perceived meaning. The resulting compositions are as much theological statements as stand-alone pieces of music and as such they bear comparison with some of the monuments of, for instance, the music of the English Reformation. Specific musical germs such as false relations and the use of carefully controlled dissonances to create suspensions (and even the English Cadence formula itself) provide obvious aural connections with the music of the sixteenth century. But there are other musical devices such as medieval hocket, psalmodic chanting, jazz-infused rhythmic cells, and close-harmony effects which combine to create a simultaneously antiquated yet modern musical style which some would call (albeit inadequately and not entirely correctly) post-modern.

The Peace of Jerusalem is the choral coda from a new oratorio called Jerusalem-Yerushalayim, and is based on chorale segments which announce passages from Isaiah. The chorale is offset by gently flowing eight-voice polyphony that is arrested at four points by short Hebrew passages which abruptly take the music into a brash key which is itself in marked contrast to the tonality of the movement’s narrative. As the piece progresses, so the textures expand and the rhythm becomes elasticated by the use of slow-formed triplets. The climax at the end dons an almost orchestral garb as the music inexorably and triumphantly takes the voices into their upper reaches.

The Sanctus and Benedictus are clearly influenced by the short Masses of the English Renaissance. These two functional movements contain mostly homophonic writing, small vocal ranges, and strictly four-voice writing with the exception of a gimell-like flowering at the final cadence. The Anglican choral tradition is perpetuated by references to the modal harmonies of the Second English Renaissance. Added-note harmony and gently dissonant melodic arches take this style further along a path that leads to a compositional practice which might aptly be described as that of the Third English Renaissance.

Directness of text setting is at a premium in A Thousand Years. Time is simultaneously suspended and set in motion from the outset, and out of that dynamic stasis arises incarnation. The chanted second section reverses the temporal perspective of the first section, and plays with natural speech rhythms onto which are grafted dancing polyrhythms; the powerful hanging ending is a portrayal of human confusion, itself a direct reference to a musical gesture devised by Mark Edgley Smith when setting a self-contradictory poem by E E Cummings.

My Dove is written in the style of an antique lullaby. Based on a softly dissonant ground bass, the harmony rocks back and forth as accompaniment to the lyrical cantilena melody which is shared between soprano and tenor. But for all the simplicity and fluidity of its construction, this is a song that requires considerable vocal virtuosity given its overall range of three and a half octaves—the tenor soloist climaxing on a top D, no less.

The ‘I AM’ sayings of Jesus are pillars of the New Testament, and refer back provocatively to the sacred Name of God revealed to Moses at the burning bush of Exodus. Comforting and perplexing at the same time, they create metaphors which allow Pitts free rein in his word painting. While these eight interlinked movements possess an individuality and solidity of musical expression, there is nevertheless an undercurrent of turbulence and restlessness. The interpretation of these canonic sayings can never be straightforward, and their musical settings sound fragile and monumental at the same time: they are simultaneously simplistic and virtuosic, logical and serendipitous. For every moment where musical common sense prevails there is a passage where, Escher-like, the conventions of melody and harmony spiral into a continuum where perspective is distorted.

Each of the motets in the ‘I AM’ cycle is set for a different number of voices ranging from one to eight: ‘The Door’ is a single melodic line, ‘The Way’ is a duet, ‘Before Abraham’ a trio, ‘The Bread’ a quartet, ‘The Light’ a quintet, ‘The Vine’ for six voices, ‘The Resurrection’ for seven, and the final ‘Alpha and Omega’ for eight voices. While these dispositions clearly affect the sound of each piece, it is remarkable that all eight motets inhabit a world that is empirically choral; in short, there is nothing missing in the sparser movements and nothing overblown in the fuller ones.

In Before Abraham was, I AM, the concentration is on unison intervals and the piece grows from chaotic pre-creation sounds to the focused parallel (faburden) harmony of medieval music. The outburst of ‘I AM’ one third of the way through is shocking and makes this motif’s appearance at the end of the cycle all the more memorable.

I AM the Bread of Life takes the interval of the second as its starting point, and the descending Mixolydian scales of the outer sections create a comfortable resonance whose security is rocked by the cross-metrical accents of the central section.

Thirds—both major and minor—are the intervallic feature of I AM the Resurrection and the Life. Lazarus’s death is initially reported gently, indeed almost casually, but thereafter the loud insistence of this statement is chilling and remains in the mind long after the optimistic resolution of the movement.

I AM the Light of the World presents a neo-medieval texture through its two upper hocketing voices and its cantus-firmus style three lowest voices; by the end of the piece these two textures are completely merged (a representation of a very modern understanding of the dual nature of light). The interval of the fourth is central to the piece’s construction, and there is a direct influence from Steve Reich’s Tehillim, not just in the rhythmic and melodic ostinati but also in the stark yet thrilling hanging ending.

The preceding movement’s resolution actually occurs with the opening bare fifth of I AM the Way, the Truth, and the Life. This two-voice setting continues its concentration on the interval of the fifth whose bold sound becomes a succession of sharp points of light in an already translucent texture.

The series of intervals continues its progression to the sixth in I AM the True Vine. Lush close-harmony provides a verdant bed in which the vine flourishes: from the opening pair of six-note cluster chords grow all kinds of chromatic and rhythmic embellishments.

The interval of the seventh is the dramatic focus of I am the Door—I am the Good Shepherd in which the solo voice presents these words of Christ as the most intensely personal statement of the set.

The cycle comes full circle with the final movement I AM Alpha and Omega; the opening unisons have expanded to octaves and the ecstatic and expansive writing becomes stratospheric at points. Quotations from each of the earlier motets—most notably their opening and closing moments—are heard both sequentially and simultaneously. Ultimately the cycle ends peacefully, although perhaps it deliberately begs as many questions as it provides answers.

Jeremy Summerly © 2008

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