Just one aspect of this release is worrying. It’s the invitation for listeners to email a selfie of themselves holding up the album booklet, for a YouTube tribute marking Arvo Pärt’s 80th birthday. Surely Pärt is one of the most selfless composers on Earth, someone who lives with his beard in ascetic splendour, much like the music he writes, certainly the unaccompanied choral music featured here.
Not that there’s anything barren or off-putting about this new Tallis Scholars anthology. Last weekend it jumped to the top of the UK’s official specialist classical albums chart, and it’s easy to see why. The Estonian Pärt reached his mature style in the 1970s, after concluding that 'it is enough when a single note is beautifully played'. Out went tangled complexity. In came music inspired by the overtones of bells—music that seems neither modern nor ancient but somehow eternal, as it hovers between simple melodies, potent silence and harmonies in thirds. You couldn’t ask for a more uplifting escape from the world’s scars and sorrows.
Peter Phillips’s group, chief specialists in Renaissance vocal music, come to this repertoire with special gifts. The forces are modest, just two voices to a part, perfect for spreading clarity and light. Purity of tone, perfect pitch, ensemble poise: these prove equally vital as singers navigate the spare landscapes of the Seven Magnificat-Antiphons, Triodion, I am the true vine, and the rest of the selection. Every note, heard singly or in combination, hits home with supreme force. When discords arrive they stab like the fiercest toothache; when consonances return, they feel deep as the ocean and truly earned.
For all Phillips’s iron control, these performances are never coldly correct. We know these are human beings singing. We know a human wrote the music, too, especially in the quiet wit of … which was the son of , a biblical genealogy list tracing Jesus’s supposed lineage through 115 names before finally reaching 'the son of God'. This is a gorgeous and inspiring album. But think twice before taking a selfie.