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Silence is golden between Pärt's notes

An Interview with Antony Pitts
by Nick Kimberly, originally published in Gramophone

There was a time when the Naxos label seemed content to provide super-budget recordings of predictably mainstream repertoire, but today its catalogue embraces the entire history of Western classical music, from the earliest to the latest. To achieve this, the label has had to forge relationships with new performers; among whom is Tonus Peregrinus, an English choir whose repertoire conveniently covers both ends of the historical spectrum.

The first fruit of this relationship is a recording of Passio, the St John Passion written by Arvo Pärt in 1982. Antony Pitts, the choir's director, recalls his first encounter with the work: 'I came across Pärt's music in the late 1980s, when I was at college in Oxford and the German label ECM was issuing recordings of works like Passio and Arbos. When I heard the Hilliard Ensemble's performance of Passio, I immediately thought, "This is a masterpiece". It was fresh and new, quite different from other composers whose works I was then getting to know, composers such as Tavener and Górecki.'

As a student at New College, Oxford, Pitts was able to take his enthusiasm one step further: 'At college,' he recalls, 'it was relatively easy to get talented musicians to come together to perform. And since the best way to get into a piece is to perform it, I conducted a performance of Passio in New College Chapel. I'm a composer myself, and it seemed to me that the problem for a composer at the end of the 2Oth century was: "What do you do now that there are no rules?" You have to construct your own boundaries. Pärt's tintinnabuli style did that in a way that seemed logical, providing a watertight formula that allowed the process to work differently in each piece. In practice, the technique allows almost limitless expression and communication.'

The choir which Pitts assembled for that college performance survives as Tonus Peregrinus (the name derives from the 'wandering' or 'foreign tone' of medieval music). Pitts calculates that the ensemble's repertoire is about equally divided between contemporary pieces (many by Pitts himself) and the four centuries or so of works that qualify as early music: 'Our next Naxos CD is of the earliest surviving polyphonic settings of the Mass, the French Mass of Tournai; and of the Passion, the English St Luke Passion, both sung in Latin. There are so many question marks about how you perform such pieces, and the only way to find an answer is to perform them yourself. So Tonus Peregrinus is very much about experimentation. Over the past few years, it has been pretty much the same set of singers, and it's been wonderful to build up a way of working with them. When I write for the group, I'm writing for those voices and the sound that they make. They are all very capable, intelligent singers; several of them direct their own groups, so there's wide experience, and while rehearsals are not exactly democratic, I value their input.'

Pärt's detractors would suggest that his music hardly requires such interpretative colloquies. Pitts begs to differ. 'In the 2Oth century many people attempted to write scores that told you everything, but no score tells you what the piece is supposed to be in its entirety. Pärt is absolutely clear about many things, but he also allows flexibility, and I think our recording is quite different from the Hilliards'. One of the challenging things is what you do about tempo. The score for Passio has only one metronome marking, at the very beginning, but clearly it's not supposed to be metronomic throughout. This is the story of Christ's Passion, it moves on, and you feel very differently by the time you reach the final section. The performance can reflect that in its micro-fluctuations of tempo, in the way that you pull the tempo round.'

Pitts has discussed the work with Pärt himself, including such apparently tiny details as the length of the silences that follow each section, an aspect not hitherto clarified by the composer. 'The effect of following Pärt's decisions,' says Pitts, 'is that the piece simply doesn't let you go. The pauses are not tea-breaks, they are part of the piece. But although Pärt is quite exacting, he knows that a composer has to let go of a work when it goes out into the world. I think he'd say that he has been well served by English choirs. His music seems to have found a natural home here.'

Written by Nick Kimberly. This article originally appeared in the April 2003 issue of Gramophone. Reprinted with permission.

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