Magnificat

Tallis Scholars at the White Light Festival on Sunday, November 7.

The fascinating thing about composer Arvo Pärt is that his music, particularly his choral music, simultaneously sounds both old and new. The textures—long pedal tones, simple chant-like rhythms—hearken back to plainchant and early Renaissance polyphony, but the stark harmonies, with their pressed semitone dissonances, could never be placed in the fifteenth-century. That strange duality gives his work an eerily timeless quality; neither here nor there, it exists on its own plane.

That duality also makes the Tallis Scholars unusually well suited to perform his music. Named for sixteenth-century English composer Thomas Tallis, the ten-voice choir specializes in sacred Renaissance music, so Pärt’s similarly textured sacred works fall into the ensemble’s repertory with apparent ease. Sunday evening’s program moved seamlessly from Pärt to Palestrina, Tallis, Allegri, Praetorious, and Byrd. The choir’s flawless intonation and expressive phrasing polished each piece like a pearl on a string, threading them together into a miraculously cohesive whole.

Every piece on the program uses one of three major liturgical texts: the Magnificat (the pregnant Mary’s song of praise, taken from the Gospel of Luke), the Nunc dimittis (Simeon’s song upon meeting the infant Jesus, also from Luke), and the Miserere (the penitential Psalm 51, used in traditional Christian liturgy during Lent). The Magnificat might have given the program its name, but each text got its due, creating a vibrant emotional spectrum.

The showiest work, Allegri’s Miserere, concluded the first half. The piece features a homophonic chant and two small choirs, one whose harmonies are highly embellished, culminating in a dramatic high C in the treble. The program notes explained that the treble line is not original—it probably dates to the nineteenth century—which makes sense: that kind of virtuosic flash feels much more native to the Romantic period than the late Renaissance. Nevertheless, when done well, the line is breathtaking—though it’s nearly impossible to do well. The line is perilously exposed, meant to somehow float upward in an angelic hush to a pitch most sopranos can only hit at a pinched fortissimo, if they can hit it at all. Even the Tallis Scholars’ Janet Coxwell sounded slightly strident in the first verse, but after that, the line was lovely, if, well, kind of repetitive. (I’ve always thought Allegri’s Miserere would be more effective if the adornments ramped up rather than playing out exactly the same way some half dozen times, but everyone loves the high C—the featured soprano always gets her own bow at the end—so there it is.)

In contrast to Allegri’s highly structured work—not to mention the intricate polyphony of the program’s other Renaissance works, such as Praetorious’s occasionally dance-like Magnificat II and Tallis’s beautifully canonic Miserere nostri—Pärt’s works are downright austere. His music tends to move very slowly, girded by pedal tones. The other lines shift against one another, holding aching dissonances and then moving into reverberant triads again. (The singers’ breath control must be incredible. With no more than two on a single part, the Tallis Scholars don’t seem to have much space to stagger-breathe, and yet those long, long lines were invariably full and unbroken.) The deliberate pace gives the music a strikingly meditative quality. You can almost fancy yourself synesthetic as the tones envelop you, evoking a shimmering palette of color.

It turns out that the name of Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival actually comes from something Pärt once wrote: “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.” It’s a mysterious idea—I’m not entirely certain what he meant by that—but as I closed my eyes and held my breath, listening to his Magnificat and seeing blues and violets and reds in my mind’s eye, his words made sense to me anyway.