Serafim Smigelskiy, the cellist in the Tesla Quartet, playing alone in Prospect Park in Brooklyn. Photo by Benjamin Norman for The New York Times

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

The Deer's Cry – William Byrd, Arvo Pärt, Thomas Tallis – The Sixteen, Harry Christophers (Download 44.1kHz/16bit)

Whilst coming from very different eras, William Byrd and Arvo Pärt are both considered masters of sacred music despite having faced considerable persecution for their work. This programme presents six of William Byrd's works from the Cantiones sacrae including the monumental Tribue, Domine, and the mighty eight-voice motet Ad Dominum cum tribularer. Also featured are works by Thomas Tallis including Miserere nostri which is now believed to have been written in collaboration with Byrd. The three works by Arvo Pärt speak in his unmistakable voice, with its unique blend of ancient and modern, and include his mesmerising Nunc dimittis which is crafted in his bell-like "tintinnabuli" style.

A lthough separated by over four centuries, the music of William Byrd and Arvo Pärt makes for a perfect match. Both spent many years facing adversity and persecution and both sought solace through their sacred music.

Byrd's later life was lived under constant threat of religious persecution – a devout Catholic and, moreover, a practising Catholic in a country where only the Anglican faith could be celebrated. However, Queen Elizabeth I not only loved music but also possessed a private empathy for Catholicism and in 1575 she granted a patent to William Byrd (now in his 30s) and the aged Tallis to publish music. The result was Cantiones sacrae, containing 17 pieces by each of them. Six of the works included in this programme come from this collection, the most monumental of which is Tribue, Domine. Its long text comes from the book of Meditations attributed to St Augustine, and Byrd treats us not only to a variety of vocal combinations, but also clear codes to his unswerving Catholic faith. In Ad Dominum cum tribularer the urgent words of the psalmist are heard: "I speak peace to them and they clamour for war" (Ego pacem loquebar et illi bellum conclamabant), while in Tribue, Domine Byrd portrays the word "kingdom" (imperium) with a certain triumphalism.

Pärt spent most of his life in Soviet-controlled Estonia – remember, it was not until the summer of 1994 that the last Russian troops withdrew from that country. For the young Pärt it all seemed normal. "We had what we had... it wasn't until I was older that I began to appreciate what it was to live in the Soviet Union, everything enclosed or forbidden." In 1979 Pärt and his family acquired exit visas to leave the Soviet Union and moved to Berlin; it was around this time that he began to experiment with tintinnabulation – which is what? Perhaps best for Pärt himself to explain: "it is an area I sometimes wander into when I am searching for answers – in my life, my music, my work. Here I am alone with silence. I have discovered that it is enough when a single note is beautifully played. This one note, or a silent beat, or a moment of silence, comforts me. I work with very few elements – with one voice, with two voices. I build with the most primitive materials – with the triad. The three notes of the triad are like bells. And that is why I called it tintinnabulation".

The result is music where the text has total clarity but is highly charged in a very specific manner. Pärt's setting of the Nunc dimittis is at times tender and serene – "for mine eyes have seen thy salvation" (quia viderunt oculi mei salutare tuum) but then bursts out into exhilarating joy at "a light to lighten the gentiles" (lumen ad revelationem gentium). The Woman with the Alabaster Box is even more extraordinary, with Jesus' words eloquently delivered and made even more powerful by the silences.

Unlike Byrd, Pärt did not write for the liturgy, but that does not mean his music is any less sacred – far from it. I have no doubt his music will resonate for years to come just as Byrd's has done for centuries.

Harry Christophers

Harry Christophers & The Sixteen (Photo: Molina Visuals)

The Deer's Cry

1. William Byrd (c.1540-1623): Diliges Dominum
2. William Byrd: Christe qui lux es et dies
3. Arvo Pärt (b.1935): The Deer's Cry
4. William Byrd: Emendemus in melius
5. Arvo Pärt: The Woman with the Alabaster Box
6. William Byrd: Miserere mihi, Domine
7. William Byrd: Ad Dominum cum tribularer
8. Thomas Tallis/William Byrd: Miserere nostri
9. Thomas Tallis (c.1505-1585): When Jesus went
10. William Byrd: O lux beata Trinitas
11. Arvo Pärt: Nunc dimittis
12. William Byrd: Laetentur coeli
13. William Byrd: Tribue, Domine

The Sixteen
Conductor: Harry Christophers

Church of St Augustine, Kilburn, London, October 26-28, 2015

The Sixteen Productions 2016

First publication: June 27, 2017 / Last update: January 23, 2019

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The Sixteen (Photo: Molina Visuals)

The music of the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt (b.1935) speaks in ancient accents, shot through with flashes of modernity. Lean, pure, and fired by the enduring tenets of the Christian faith, it shuns everything romantic, and instead hints at arcane rituals acted out in solemn ways. Its medieval quality means that Pärt combines supremely well with genuinely old music, and some thrilling combinations can be imagined. Pärt and Pérotin; Pärt and Machaut; Pärt and Ockeghem; Pärt and Josquin. For this recording, Harry Christophers has aligned Pärt with two Tudor composers, Thomas Tallis (d.1585) and William Byrd (d.1623), a pairing made all the more apt by Harry's choice of some English works that are themselves composed rigorously according to logic and rule, or address the fusion of old with new. Here, Tallis and Byrd meet Pärt on common ground.

There are times when a composer may concern himself with aspects of craft that are hard or even impossible for the listener to follow. Audiences find this puzzling, and deem such works to be cryptic and mathematical. If music is by definition sound – humanly organized sound – then why organize sounds in such ways that the listener is excluded? The point is neatly made by this disc's opening work, Byrd's eight-voice motet Diliges Dominum. If you have the means to do so, try playing this track backwards, and you will find that, words apart, it sounds the same as it does forwards. The piece is a perfect palindrome, yet no one could possibly know that from performance alone. Our brains cannot process temporal symmetry in the way we instantly see visual symmetry.

Why, then, was this weird work written? At least three answers come to mind. First, Byrd composed it because he could. If carefully chosen, chordal sequences and melodies will work both forwards and backwards, and Byrd must have loved the challenge of working this out for himself. Second, he wrote this crabcanon for the delight of the eight singers who, using Byrd's original notation, must read from only four melodic lines. Four of them sing these melodies forwards, the other four sing them backwards; and by doing so, their eyes unlock the work's musical conceit. But Byrd's third reason for composing this piece may be the most important, for he placed it in a book that ensured its readership across Europe. In 1575, Byrd and Tallis jointly published a collection of motets called Cantiones sacrae ("Sacred songs"). It was dedicated to Queen Elizabeth, and it was explicitly made for export, to display the brilliance of Tudor culture to the outside world. Small wonder, then, that both Tallis and Byrd do some musical showing off in these motets.

The most breathtaking piece in the 1575 book is the one placed at its end: the sevenvoice Miserere nostri (track 8). Usually this work is credited to Tallis alone, but more likely it is by Tallis and Byrd, the two men working collaboratively: first four voices composed by Byrd, then three more added by Tallis. The strange beauty of this piece hints that something arcane lurks under its sonorous surface, and indeed it does – but it can only be grasped by viewing the piece from the singer's perspective, since it too is concerned with sight as well as sound. Just three notated lines are needed to convey this work's seven-voice polyphony, two of them bearing instructions (or "canons") telling how they must be deciphered. The first melody, attributed to Byrd in the 1575 Cantiones sacrae, is to be read by four lowvoice singers, all starting on the same note at the same time. The first of them sings the line exactly as written. The second doubles all the durations of the notes (x2), and turns all the intervals upside down. The third singer quadruples the durations (x4) and restores the intervals. The fourth octuples the durations (x8) and re-inverts the intervals. Thus four different versions of the same melody sound simultaneously, in various states of augmentation and inversion – a conceit that is utterly impossible to follow in sound. Byrd then handed this to Tallis, who deftly added a superstructure: two sopranos sing in straightforward canon at the unison (very easy for listeners to hear), and a free seventh voice plugs some polyphonic gaps. "Miserere nostri, Domine" (Have mercy on us, Lord) are all the words supplied for this lean and logical motet.

Other works on this recording play compositional games, some more easily discerned than others. Simplest to follow is the two-voice canon in Tallis's When Jesus went (track 9), in which the soprano replicates the baritone an octave higher after two beats. In the 1575 Cantiones sacrae this work was published as a motet, Salvator mundi, in which form it is most often heard today; but some Elizabethan manuscripts transmit the music with an English text telling the story of Jesus and the woman with the alabaster box (Matthew 26:6), and our recording opts for this version, to pair with Pärt's The Woman with the Alabaster Box (track 5). Byrd's game in Christe qui lux es et dies (track 2) is also quite easy to follow. Five voices are in play here, and five stanzas of text are set to polyphony. In turn, each voice sings the traditional plainchant melody used for this hymn, starting with the bass (polyphonic stanza 1), then rising through the texture to the soprano (polyphonic stanza 5). Each statement is harmonized in simple block chords filled with surprises – not unlike the choral chanting favoured by Arvo Pärt, in which strings of consonant chords are locally spiced with piquancies.

Cleverer by far are two further Byrd motets from the 1575 Cantiones sacrae – "cleverer" in the sense that they took immense skill to devise, even though that skill frankly bypasses us in sound. O lux beata Trinitas (track 10), a paean of praise to Father, Son and Holy Spirit, ends with a trinitarian three-voice canon which in Sudoku terms would be classed as "fiendish"; and Byrd does this because he can, not because he expects us to hear it. In Miserere mihi, Domine (track 6) he does ingenious things with the plainchant melody of the same name – including, near the end, a two-voice canon made from the chant, interwoven with a second and totally different canon sung by two more voices. Strange rituals indeed.

The theme of craftsmanship connects all the works mentioned so far; but this recording also features pieces on another theme that has long been of special interest to Arvo Pärt: the judicious balancing of the old against the new. William Byrd too was deeply concerned with this, and four pieces lead us along his pathway of thought. That path starts with Tribue, Domine (track 13), a vast six-voice motet cast in three big sections, in which Byrd quite openly pays homage to his Tudor ancestors – composers such as Robert Fayrfax, John Taverner, and the youthful Thomas Tallis. Tribue, Domine behaves as if it were a votive antiphon, in which sections for reduced choir alternate with ones for tutti. Byrd, however, has modernized the form into something more declamatory and expressive, and the subject-matter of its text is different: not a hymn to the Virgin Mary, as in pre-Reformation antiphons, but now an address to the Trinity. Elsewhere, Byrd weighs old against new by turning his gaze to continental Europe, and redefining his English style in relation to foreign fashion. His mighty eight-voice motet Ad Dominum cum tribularer (track 7) tackles the musical texture known as "imitation", in which long and distinctive thematic subjects pass among the eight voices, densely packed together in tight interlock – a craft Byrd knew from works by mid-century continental masters such as Nicolas Gombert and Jacobus Clemens non Papa. In Emendemus in melius (track 4), Byrd turned instead to his musical friend and contemporary Alfonso Ferrabosco, an Italian composer-cum-spy resident at the Tudor court, who became Byrd's musical sparring partner in the 1570s. Hence Emendemus in melius, Byrd's first contribution to the 1575 Cantiones sacrae, which builds on (and frankly improves upon) a piece by Alfonso himself. As for Laetentur coeli (track 12), it reveals Byrd's fully mature style in which Italian and English elements are perfectly fused, and it therefore sets the tone for the rest of Byrd's composing career.

The three pieces by Arvo Pärt all belong to the decade 1997-2007. They speak in Pärt's unmistakable voice, with its unique blend of ancient and modern. Spare textures, drones, notes left hanging as if suspended, structures built around scales, others that open and close like scissors – and above all, the solemn chanting of words in ways that hint at Orthodox chant: all these are locally present, though differently permutated in each piece. The Woman with the Alabaster Box of 1997 (track 5) sets the narrative text of Matthew 26:6-13, and is the most dramatic of the three. Nunc dimittis of 2001 (track 11), composed for liturgical use, is remarkable for its doxology ("Gloria Patri"), which is crafted in Pärt's bell-like "tintinnabuli" style; it leaves the listener wondering whether its undulating scales and arpeggios, which gently collide with one another (and against a drone), follow some arcane system or are merely random. Finally The Deer's Cry of 2007 (track 3) sets part of the lorica (incantation) attributed to the fifth-century St Patrick. This powerful text has come to be known by various names; the one chosen by Pärt has also been used for this disc.

Source: John Milsom, 2015 (CD Booklet)

Harry Christophers (Photo by Stu Rosner)

Harry Christophers is known internationally as founder and conductor of The Sixteen as well as being a regular guest conductor for many of the major symphony orchestras and opera companies worldwide. He has directed The Sixteen choir and orchestra throughout Europe, America and Asia-Pacific, gaining a distinguished reputation for his work in Renaissance, Baroque and 20th- and 21st-century music. In 2000 he instituted The Choral Pilgrimage, a national tour of English cathedrals from York to Canterbury in music from the pre-Reformation, as The Sixteen's contribution to the millennium celebrations. The Pilgrimage in the UK is now central to The Sixteen's annual artistic programme.

Since 2008 Harry Christophers has been Artistic Director of Boston's Handel and Haydn Society; he is also Principal Guest Conductor of the Granada Symphony Orchestra. As well as enjoying a partnership with the BBC Philharmonic, with whom he won a Diapason d'Or, he is a regular guest conductor with the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields. With The Sixteen he is an Associate Artist at The Bridgewater Hall in Manchester and features in the highly successful BBC television series, "Sacred Music", presented by Simon Russell Beale.

Harry has conducted numerous productions for Lisbon Opera and English National Opera as well as conducting the UK premiere of Messager’s opera Fortunio for Grange Park Opera. He is a regular conductor at Buxton Opera where he initiated a very successful cycle of Handel's operas and oratorios including "Semele", "Samson", "Saul" and "Jephtha".

Harry Christophers is an Honorary Fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, as well as the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama and has been awarded the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Music by the University of Leicester. He was awarded a CBE in the 2012 Queen's Birthday Honours.

Source: CD Booklet

The Sixteen (Photo: Molina Visuals)

After three decades of worldwide performance and recording, The Sixteen is recognised as one of the world's greatest ensembles. Its special reputation for performing early English polyphony, masterpieces of the Renaissance, Baroque and early Classical periods, and a diversity of 20th- and 21st-century music, all stems from the passions of conductor and founder, Harry Christophers.

The Sixteen tours internationally giving regular performances at the major concert halls and festivals. At home in the UK, The Sixteen are "The Voices of Classic FM" as well as Associate Artists of The Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, Artistic Associate of Kings Place and hold a 2015-2016 Artist Residency at Wigmore Hall. The group also promotes The Choral Pilgrimage, an annual tour of the UK's finest cathedrals.

The Sixteen's period-instrument orchestra has taken part in acclaimed semi-staged performances of Purcell's "The Fairy Queen" in Tel Aviv and London, a fully staged production of Purcell's "King Arthur" in Lisbon's Belém Centre, and new productions of Monteverdi's "Il ritorno d'Ulisse" at Lisbon Opera House and "The Coronation of Poppea" at English National Opera.

Over 130 recordings reflect The Sixteen's quality in a range of work spanning the music of 500 years. In 2009 the group won the coveted Classic FM Gramophone Artist of the Year Award and the Baroque Vocal Award for Handel's Coronation Anthems. The Sixteen also features in the highly successful BBC television series, Sacred Music, presented by Simon Russell Beale.

In 2011 the group launched a new training programme for young singers, called Genesis Sixteen. Aimed at 18- to 23-year-olds, this is the UK's first fully funded choral programme for young singers designed specifically to bridge the gap from student to professional practitioner.

Source: CD Booklet

Harry Christophers & The Sixteen (Photo: Molina Visuals)

See also

Christmas with the Faces of Classical Music

Carlo Gesualdo: Sacrarum Cantionum Liber Primus a 5 voci – Oxford Camerata, Jeremy Summerly (Audio video)

Sacred Salterio: Lamentations of the Holy Week – Miriam Feuersinger, Il Dolce Conforto, Franziska Fleischanderl, Jonathan Pesek, Deniel Perer (Audio video)

Nicolas Gombert: Motets, Vol. II – Beauty Farm (Download 44.1kHz/16bit)

Nicolas Gombert: Motets, Vol. I – Beauty Farm (Download 44.1kHz/16bit)

Johannes Ockeghem: Missa L'homme armé, Missa quinti toni – Beauty Farm (Download 44.1kHz/16bit)

In the Midst of Life. Music from the Baldwin Partbooks I – Contrapunctus, Owen Rees (Audio video)

Antoine Busnoys: For the love of Jaqueline (Medieval love songs) – Sylvia Rhyne, Eric Redlinger (Audio video)

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