Album du jour: Peter Phillips & the Tallis Scholars, “Arvo Pärt: Tintinnabuli”

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It was fated, as no doubt foretold by the Sibyl: “And lo, there would come to pass a time when Magister Peter Phillips and his chorus, known throughout Britannia and all ye lands as ye Tallis Scholars, who hath achieveth much acclaim and soldeth many albums, w0uld forsake the house of ye Renaissance polyphony, in which they had become regarded as great princes and princesses, and follow instead the path of the Estonian Pärt, christened Arvo, who liveth for nigh on four score years, and delighteth many ears by composing workes of musicke in a most sparing fashion, choosing his notes as a criticke of musicke chooseth compliments.”

And what we get is pretty much what ol’ Sib would have expected, a wide and varied selection of Arvo Pärt’s a cappella works (click here for repertoire and album notes, and to download), performed with stunning perfection. Not a chord is mistuned, nor a voice unblended. Take it from one who has performed a few of these works: the execution, awesome to behold, reaches the very highest level of choral accomplishment.

So, nothing to quibble about? Well…call me ungrateful, call me impossible, call me irresponsible (oops, that one’s taken). Yet I couldn’t help feeling as I listened that amazing as they are, a certain blandness made these performances a little less than they could be.

This struck me right from the opening selections, “Sieben Magnificat-Antiphonen” (German settings of seven Magnificat Antiphons). As beautifully as the Tallis Scholars sing this music, their German pronunciation lacks bite and character. The voices ring as true as bells, and with about as much expression. The Scholars sound great, but Pärt’s music has more than sound going for it — and more than the Tallis Scholars offer it.

Other groups, especially those from the Baltics — the superb Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir comes to mind — sing Pärt with nearly as much technical aplomb, but with more warmth and emotional connection. These Nordic groups even employ a tiny degree of vibrato which, though strictly shunned by early music groups like the Scholars, has never been known to cause physical harm to any listener — sort of like the GMOs of music. Listen to the Estonians’ far more dramatic performance of the Antiphons (sorry, the Tallis Scholars CD is not on Spotify, but may be sampled here).

So, to hear Pärt’s a cappella music done to heavenly perfection, the Tallis Scholars album is a must. To hear it in flesh and blood, check out the Estonians. Here’s their Pärt discography. And for the curious, here’s a basic explanation of the album’s title, “Tintinnabuli,” a very important word in the Pärt lexicon.

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