Friday, September 11, 2015

Happy 80th birthday, Arvo Pärt - "Tintinnabuli" - The Tallis Scholars - Gimell 2015

I cannot allow the great Estonian composer's birthday to pass without a bday post :) And this is the perfect recording...after all it was released as a tribute to Arvo Part on his 80th year! The celebration is a lofty one indeed, with the Tallis Scholars piercing the heavens with some of Part's finest and profound works for voices.

Here are the booklet notes:

No music being written today makes a more satisfying match with Renaissance polyphony than the sacred compositions of Arvo Pärt. In recent years I have regularly been adding one or two pieces by him to our concert programmes, ever more convinced that his music was providing an important new perspective to the work of the older masters. In time this conviction led to my desire to make a recording of his a cappella compositions, with the added novelty that it would be sung in the way we sing Renaissance music-two voices to a part. It is my belief that the resulting clarity and lightness of texture benefits Pärt's writing as much as it benefits that of Tallis and Palestrina.
In concert the similarity between Pärt and the Renaissance masters seems almost self-evident and is often commented upon. However it is quite hard to define. A strong religious sense in Pärt-one takes this for granted in Tallis and Palestrina-is clearly one reason, as is the use of silence (or the presumption of silence) which is inherent in the work of all of them. And then there is Pärt's diatonic language coupled with his use of melody. Underlying all the music here is a method well known to the Renaissance polyphonists: diatonic melody, based on simple harmony related to one or more triads closely related to the home ‘key'. There is no chromaticism, no modulation, the background remains uncluttered and uncomplicated, and the music moves harmonically slowly, which helps to enshrine its stillness. In fact there are really only two differences between Pärt and Tallis or Palestrina: Pärt tends not to write counterpoint in the detailed way the Renaissance composers did-his melodies come one at a time; and he uses a system of harmony which derives from the technique he has called Tintinnabuli.

Tintinnabuli was identified by Pärt as a compositional method in 1976, since when he has made it his own-indeed I know of no other composer who has used it. In origin it derives from the sounds which bells emit when they are struck-a confusion of fundaments and overtones. This is where Pärt's diatonic language comes from (bells do not deal in chromaticisms), and also where his characteristic close-note harmony comes from-as the sound of a bell retreats from its source the fundamental note blurs, becoming a chord cluster around the original pitch.

Between 1968 and 1976 Pärt suffered a kind of writer's block. During this time he became increasingly drawn to early music, especially to medieval writing and to the monastic lifestyle which hosted it; and to choral-writing. In this context one can see how the sound of bells, so closely associated with the repertoires he had come to admire, might have helped him. He said of Tintinnabuli: ‘I have the certain feeling that everything outside this one thing has no meaning. The complex and many-faceted only confuse me, and I must search for unity. [With Tintinnabuli] I am alone with silence. I have discovered that it is enough when a single note is beautifully played.' Armed with this inspiring sound-world, Pärt began increasingly to write for choirs, and regularly for unaccompanied choirs.

We have collected on this recording many of the most significant a cappella works by Pärt which have their origin in Tintinnabuli. As an example of this style one need look no further than the famous Magnificat (track 8), which was written in 1989. Bearing in mind that the essence of Tintinnabuli is to mix simple melody with the home triad, one can hear it in every bar: the triad is most obviously present in the repeated C (of F minor) which is sounding more or less from start to finish and around which a stepwise melody winds. The opening duet is a perfect example. Many other such duets follow. In the explosive full sections the F minor triad is more fully present, framing the melodies.

The Magnificat illustrates Tintinnabuli with little embellishment. In the other pieces it is always there, though Pärt is inventive enough never to become predictable. In the Sieben Magnificat-Antiphonen (tracks 1 to 7-written in 1988 and therefore the earliest music in this collection) the seven movements are held together by careful tonal organization, using the note A as the central pitch from which the different triads of the various movements depend. It can easily be heard that the seventh movement ends where the first movement began (based in A major), but between them the other movements have their own A-related triads to explore and their own melodies with which to embellish the triads. In the Nunc dimittis (tracks 10 to 12-written in 2001 and not intended as a foil to the Magnificat), Pärt is more concerned with triads than with melody, as the first bars make clear. This wonderfully inspired opening is balanced by the equally astonishing ‘Gloria Patri' at the end, with its repeated chords of C sharp minor (a low C sharp constantly sounding), the perfect evocation of a bell tolling.
The Woman with the Alabaster Box and Tribute to Caesar (tracks 13 to 17) were written as a pair in 1997. Their similarity of style is evident, setting substantial narrative biblical texts with impressive solemnity, most often in block chords. Both ask the second basses to sing unusually low-D and C respectively-and I wonder if there is any more beautiful phrase in contemporary choral-writing than the setting of the words ‘they marvelled' in Tribute to Caesar, heading with perfect inevitability to a bottom C. And for a peal of bells ringing out with full overtones there is little to rival the final page of The Woman with the Alabaster Box, beginning at ‘Verily I say unto you...'

I Am the True Vine and Triodion were not written as a pair, though they share the use of that favourite medieval stand-by, the drone. They also both show minimalist techniques. In I Am the True Vine (track 18-written in 1996) Pärt confronts any notion of through-composed thought by fracturing his lines, leaving notes seemingly to be plucked out of thin air. In the centre of it, however, is a double drone (bass with, later, soprano) which acts as a kind of magnet for the circling particles. Triodion (tracks 19 to 23, written in 1998) is more straightforward, beginning and ending with chant, each of the three Odes concluding with static repetitions based on a drone. Yet in the centre of the third Ode is one of those phrases which seems to come from nowhere (‘that our souls may be saved'). It is of such power that everything is silenced by it. Having played around with lower sonorities, Pärt here takes the sopranos up to top B flat.

Which Was the Son of ... (track 9-written in 2000) stands on its own. Commissioned by the City of Reykjavík, Pärt allowed himself to poke a little fun at two idiosyncratic aspects of local life: the way family names are organized, and the way the Icelanders pronounce their ‘rrrs'. From the former came the desire, perhaps it was even a dare, to set the entire genealogy of Christ; and from the latter the stipulated rolled ‘r' in the name of ‘Er'. The overall result is an astonishingly effective piece of writing, forced from the least tractable of texts, as witty as it is unlikely. Here again is Pärt's ability to control slow-moving textures, which culminate in bells pealing away towards the end, as the text approaches ‘God'.

Enjoy everyone


Guillermo Saar said...

Thank you so much! My peeps are Estonian, and this is one of our finest contributions to culture. (Jury is still out on Skype's creation)

Tzadik said...

Hi there Guillermo, you are welcome and thank you for commenting. Yes, Arvo Pärt is an Estonian treasure. No wonder it's always Pärty time in your native country :-o

Skype... well, it's more convenient than a message in a bottle. I would have to say that if I could arrange to Skype *with* maestro Pärt, however-then I'd believe it to be the best thing since sliced bread ;)