Voices Raised to Echo Higher Worlds
09 November 2010New York Times
Whatever a listener’s spiritual bent (or lack thereof), surely only a zombie would have been unmoved by the transcendent singing of the Tallis Scholars on Sunday afternoon in the White Light Festival at Lincoln Center. The festival was created as a spiritual retreat for frazzled New Yorkers; to judge from the awestruck adjectives used by gushing patrons after the concert at Alice Tully Hall, the music making certainly had, at the very least, an uplifting effect.
The Tallis Scholars, a venerable a cappella British ensemble conducted by Peter Phillips, usually sing Renaissance polyphony. They proved themselves equally adept in the idiom of the contemporary Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, who inspired the title of the festival.
Mr. Pärt, who rebelled against Soviet atheism, has written: “I could compare my music to white light, which contains all colors. Only a prism can divide the colors and make them appear; this prism could be the spirit of the listener.”
Mr. Pärt calls his signature technique, which he developed from Renaissance polyphony and Gregorian and Russian chant, tintinnabuli, inspired by the Latin word for bells. The music features meditative tempos and gently shifting yet static harmonies.
But moments of eerie dissonance render the results particularly striking, as in the “Sieben Magnificat-Antiphonen,” which was given a superb performance here. The seven sections, though stark, traverse a variety of moods and textures, from the austere, low male voices of “O Adonai” to the ecstatic “O Emmanuel.”
The program also included Mr. Pärt’s “Magnificat” and his “Nunc Dimittis,” in which a dialogue between the women’s voices unfolds over the men’s pedal tones.
The rest of the concert was devoted to Tallis Scholars staples, with works by Palestrina, Tallis, Allegri, Praetorius and Byrd, including Allegri’s well-known “Miserere,” in which an embellished soprano voice soars to high C above the ensemble.
Throughout the evening the Tallis singers performed with a beautiful blend, the distinctive sounds of individual voices never detracting from the group’s cohesion. Their impressive intonation, buoyancy and expressive use of phrasing and dynamics rendered each work a treat.
The program opened with an elegantly shaped interpretation of Palestrina’s “Magnificat” for double choir. As an encore, Mr. Phillips, who said he wished to end the concert “back where we began, in the Sistine Chapel,” led a lovely rendition of Palestrina’s “Nunc Dimittis” for double choir.
Read the full review in the New York Times.