From the opening bars of ‘O Weisheit', the first of the Sieben Magnificat-Antiphonen, this disc of unacccompanied choral works from The Tallis Scholars and Peter Phillips announces itself as one of the great Pärt recordings. In this seven-movement setting in German, the singing possesses a remarkable lyrical depth that is ever alive to the work's judiciously varied rhythmic, harmonic and textural details. From the serene A major opening and the striking A minor descent of the central movement (‘O Schlüssel Davids'), to the extraordinary fifth movement (‘O Morgenstern') coloured by the simultaneous use of both E major (sopranos and tenors) and E minor (altos and basses) and the rich rhythmic interplay of the D minor sixth movement (‘O König aller Völker'), the Scholars are completely inside this music.
Nor should we be surprised that this is the case. The inspiration for Pärt's ‘tintinnabuli' style (after the Latin word for ‘bell') came from plainchant and early vocal polyphony, and no other contemporary composer has made such a profound study of this music, and with such fruitful results, as Pärt. In addition to plainchant and the composers of the Notre Dame school, this study included the music of Obrecht, Ockeghem, Josquin, Victoria and Palestrina. As the leading exponents of Renaissance sacred music, The Tallis Scholars display a profound consanguinity with Pärt's music: its immobility, its objectivity, its nondevelopmental aesthetic. Composer and interpreters could hardly be better matched.
Once set, the exceptionally high benchmark never falters. In a performance as translucent, contemplative and perfectly balanced as the one it receives here, it's easy to see why Pärt's Magnificat (1989) has become one of his most beloved works. Sung in a hushed pianissimo, both the magical return to the very opening line of text (‘Magnificat anima mea Dominum') at the work's conclusion—rather than the customary ‘Gloria Patri'—and the exquisite effect of ending not in the ‘home' tonality of F minor but on an unresolved D flat major seventh chord in second inversion, are captivatingly performed.
Setting the genealogy of Jesus from St Luke's Gospel, Which Was the Son of … (2000) is one of Pärt's more unusual works. Homing in on the work's subtle variations in tempo and texture, The Tallis Scholars ensure that the work is far from being a monotonous list of biblical names, reserving an especially resplendent C major climax at the mention of Abraham.
Completing a triptych of works setting text from St Luke's Gospel, Pärt's Nunc dimittis (2001), also known as Simeon's Song of Praise, unfolds in one unbroken, expressive arc. Following luminous interpretations of The Woman with the Alabaster Box and the slow-moving, syllabic declamation of Tribute to Caesar, both dating from 1997 and setting excerpts from St Matthew's Gospel, we then move to St John's Gospel for I Am the True Vine (1996). In this work, written for the 900th anniversary of the foundation of Norwich Cathedral, Pärt's use of a drone, provided by divisi basses and sopranos at exactly the midway point, is heard to great effect in this performance.
The Tallis Scholars conclude the disc with Triodion, a group of three prayers (to Christ, to Mary and to St Nicholas) that Pärt found in an Orthodox prayer book. I fondly recall the first public performance of the work at Westminster Abbey on April 30th, 1998—following its first performance the previous evening at a private concert in Lancing College Chapel—not least because I had the opportunity to hear the College Choir rehearsing the work at the Abbey thanks to a kind invitation by the composer (who also lent me his score). As Phillips comments in his excellent booklet notes, in a typically Pärtian coup de théâtre which sees the sopranos soaring up to top B flat, the third prayer contains ‘one of those phrases which seems to come from nowhere ('that our souls may be saved') … of such power that everything is silenced by it'. It concludes a disc of quite exceptional, at times heart-stopping, beauty. While there may be other Pärt recordings in this, his 80th birthday year, it is difficult to imagine there being a finer one. Recorded in the Chapel of Merton College, Oxford, the performers seem to be captured at a slight distance rather than close up, which serves only to enhance the impression of eavesdropping on some celestial concert. The generous 28-page booklet includes complete texts in Latin, English, German and Italian.