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Arvo Pärt - Tintinnabuli

“It is with great pleasure that we present our tribute to Arvo Pärt in his 80th year. Tintinnabuli (from the Latin for ‘bell’) is the compositional style created by Arvo Pärt which informs every work on this recording. In all my searchings for inspiring contemporary music I have not come across anyone to rival him” Peter Phillips (in 2015)


In singing the motets of Arvo Pärt with so much eloquence, the Tallis Scholars put them on a par with the masterpieces of the renaissance. With this programme for unaccompanied choir the Tallis Scholars pay homage to Arvo Pärt on his 80th birthday. To realise this Peter Phillips and his singers have put together, under the title of Tintinnabuli - the word used to describe music inspired by the ringing of bells - eight motets dating from the 1990s.

For some time now this celebrated choir has been in the habit of adding one or two of these pieces to their polyphonic renaissance  programmes, 'ever more convinced', as Peter Phillips says in his excellent notes to the disc, 'that Pärt's music provides a new and important perspective to the work of the renaissance masters'. And indeed in their concerts, as well as on this disc, the Tallis Scholars sing Pärt as they sing renaissance music - with two voices on each vocal line.


This is extremely eloquent: their precision, clarity and lightness of texture serves the contemporary writing of the Estonian just as well as it serves that of Tallis or Palestrina. Rarely has the radical simplicity of Pärt's music - its unadorned, diatonic harmony - been so effectively captured. By using reduced forces, and by placing the microphone near the singers, the perfect blend of the Tallis Scholars has resulted in performances which ideally complement the more usual way of recording this music, as represented by Tonu Kaljuste (Erato and ECM), who is more 'choral' and dramatic in his approach. And this disc supplants those of Paul Hillier on Harmonia Mundi, which introduced us to these pieces in the first place.  In the meantime some of them have become classics, like the Magnificat or Which was the Son of...

Bertrand Dermoncourt

From the October 2015 issue of Classica (France). Translation: Gimell.

"No music being written today makes a more satisfying match with Renaissance polyphony than the sacred compositions of Arvo Pärt," writes The Tallis Scholars' Peter Phillips, going on to prove the point in some style on this magnificent disc, where Pärt's music is sung with two voices to a part. The resultant clarity also owes much to this choir's distinctly English sound, and to the fact that the recording, made in the Chapel of Merton College, is closeish and never over-resonant. Instead of ambient, new-age mush, we get brightness and warmth. The first of the Sieben Magnificat-Antiphonen is typical; its opening diatonic chord like stepping into sunlight. Pärt can achieve miracles with very simple means, and his unfussy subtleties are brilliantly exposed here. Phillips's nailling of what makes this music work never detracts from its genius - there's no counterpoint, no fancy modulating and a stateliness of pace which never gets dull.

The Tallis basses are on fine form. The repeated low C sharps at the close of the tiny Nunc dimittis are superb, and they're magical in a tiny, squelchy cadence near the close of Tribute to Caesar. Four of these works are settings of Biblical texts in English. The effect is occasionally unsettling, the words unfeasibly stretched out but always remaining audible, despite Pärt's characteristic shifts of pitch. Listen through decent speakers or headphones and enjoy consecutive words emerging from different voices and registers. A wonderful achievement: both spiritually and musically refreshing, and the most enjoyable, accessible Pärt collection I've come across.

Graham Rickson

The Tallis Scholars have long incorporated the music of Arvo Pärt (b1935) into their programmes of Renaissance polyphony. The mix works because, despite the span of centuries, the musical language for these unaccompanied religious works is not dissimilar (well explained by director Peter Phillips in his CD note).

This disc is devoted to the Estonian composer alone, in celebration of his 80th birthday. The title comes from Pärt’s own harmonic technique, inspired by the sounds of bells, first the strike, then the retreating overtones. From the Magnificat to The Woman With the Alabaster Box and I Am the True Vine, the Tallis Scholars bring their own unblemished radiance to this glowing music.

Fiona Maddox

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.

Geoff Brown

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.

Peter Quinn

International Record Review

Arvo Pärt’s music expands freely into the space between sound and silence, a place of transition that suggests something other, certainly something bigger, than our everyday fears. It does so with great simplicity and gentleness, inviting listeners to contemplate the cosmic unity in which all things may be connected.

As Peter Phillips points out in the illuminating notes to Tintinnabuli, the composer forged his instantly recognisable musical language with the rich sonorities of bells in mind. The purity and warmth produced by the Tallis Scholars, delivered by two singers per voice part, draws out the beauty of Pärt’s a cappella writing, less austere here than in many recordings using larger forces but more redolent than just about anything I’ve heard of the infinite silence out of which his sounds arise.

Tintinabuli, released to mark Pärt’s 80th birthday this September, offers something desperately desired in a world ringing to the sounds of hatred. There’s stillness at the heart of these performances, what Phillips describes as ‘the presumption of silence’. It’s there from the beginning, framed like a sacred relic by the Seven Magnificat Antiphons, intensified in the Magnificat and crafted with care sufficient to suspend time and open hearts in The Woman with the Alabaster Box and Tribute to Caesar. An essential recording, not to be missed.

Andrew Stewart


Pärt’s 'tintinnabuli' method is an aesthetic, a way of thinking and a way of life, all combined, all reduced to their essence. Based on centuries-old compositional techniques and using rarefied musical material – a simple arpeggio or scale or, more often, a triad – it is frequently identified with minimalism. In fact, however, it is a return to Renaissance polyphony, to Palestrina – but with affinities to Messiaen and Penderecki as well.


All this is exemplified to perfection by this recording, both in terms of its truly exceptional performances, whose transparency, virtuosity and sheer vocal perfection are beyond compare, and in terms of the way it reflects the unique artistic path taken by Pärt, making him one of the most inspired composers of our time. This is an album to be savoured, one to counter the effects of so many kitsch intrusions into our noisy, overcrowded lives.

Stefano Pagliantini

Translated from Italian by Susannah Howe for Gimell Records. Reproduced with permission from Musica, Italy.

Given that the music of Arvo Pärt is among a vanishingly small group by whom it is possible to follow a clear line back to 'early' music, The Tallis Scholars are, on paper, the best group imaginable to record his music. Peter Phillips has disagreed in the past with the idea that there is a direct link between the two - it is certainly the case that the stasis that underpins Pärt's harmony creates a kind of timelessness that is less, not more, in need of historical context - but either way, the purity of The Tallis Scholars' sound provides the perfect scaffolding for the pieces on this disc. Not least because the bell-like, note-clustering Tintinnabuli music of Pärt (illustrated here in its most basic form in the Magnificat) is there specifically to address the issue of perception, time and history.

The argument about whether Pärt is a composer affected by context or simply creating music out of a vacuum continues, but in many ways its calm equilibrium is an engaging mystery that could only be considered regressive if viewed in its dimmest light. And in their performance The Tallis Scholars have presented their chosen repertoire in the way they have always done best - as a sound world of profound beauty.

Caroline Gill


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