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Antony PITTS (b. 1969)
Adoro te (1999) [3’55"]
The Lord’s Prayer (1997) [3’58"]
The First and Last (1988) [2’16"]
Seven Letters (1998) [24’10"]
O Love (1999) [3’46"]
O Wisdom of God. Antiphon for Advent (1991) [9’36"]
O Holy of Holies. Antiphon for Advent (1995) [4’16"]
Amen (2000) [8’24"]
Tonus Peregrinus/Antony Pitts
rec. Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, Wadhurst, East Sussex, 18-19 Sept 2000 DDD
HYPERION CDA67507 [61’25"]

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Antony Pitts studied at New College, Oxford and while he was there, in 1990, he founded Tonus Peregrinus, a group of seven other singers – I think an additional bass has since been added. Over the years Pitts and his colleagues have explored quite a wide range from early music to the music of our own time, including that of Arvo Pärt, whose St. John Passion the group has previously recorded for Naxos.(review) Here now is a CD entirely devoted to Pitts’ own music, a recital which has been "in the can" for almost five years.

I’ve already referred to Arvo Pärt and the sound-world of some of his vocal music came to mind while I was listening to this disc. I mention that as a possible point of reference for listeners though I should make it clear that Pitts writes very much in his own rather individual style.

The earliest piece on the disc, The First and Last, stands a bit apart from its companions in stylistic terms. Jeremy Summerly describes it in his liner-note as being "in the robust genre of a worship-song." It’s a flowing, quite brisk, hymn tune. Both the melody and the harmony are fresh and optimistic and there’s a strong rhythmic impulse. It put me in mind of the spirit of the American religious songs of the early colonial period.

O Wisdom of God is a setting of the seven Great ‘O’ antiphons that are part of the liturgy of Vespers in the days immediately preceding Christmas. To the usual seven antiphons Pitts has added an eighth from an eighteenth-century French source. The music features spare harmonies and an undulating line. The piece builds cumulatively so that one gets the sense of mounting anticipation as the feast of Christmas draws closer. O Holy of Holies is another Advent antiphon. Once again the text is from an eighteenth-century French source, possibly the same source as Pitts drew on for O Wisdom of God? This is a piece in slow tempo and the harmony is significantly more dense and dissonant than was the case in O Wisdom of God.

The largest scale work in the collection and the one that gives the album its title is Seven Letters. The choice of text is an unusual one, consisting of the seven letters addressed to the various Christian churches of Asia Minor that are appended to the Book of Revelation. The work is dedicated, I believe, to the seven (founder?) members of Tonus Peregrinus and each of the dedicatees is the soloist in one of the sections of the work. Seven Letters plays continuously but each of its sections is helpfully tracked separately on the CD. The structure follows a pattern in that each section consists of some prefatory words sung by all the singers. Thereafter the main text of each letter is sung by the soloist in question in what can best be described as a kind of recitative, accompanied by combinations of the remaining singers. All the vocalists come together to sing the last few sentences of each letter. Pitts shows great skill and imagination in varying the melodic material for each soloists and, even more so, by providing each soloist with a very different type of vocal accompaniment. To get such variety of texture from a small number of voices is no mean achievement, especially as Pitts never resorts to any outlandish effects.

Among the other pieces two particularly impressed me. O Love is a setting of a seventeenth-century text. The music is in an infectiously lilting triple time and the main melody, given to the sopranos, seems to spiral ever higher. Each of the seven stanzas concludes with a short couplet refrain. The last time that we hear this the harmony is particularly elaborate and rich, imparting a suitable tone of ecstasy with which to conclude a wedding anthem.

Like O Love, Adoro te was composed in 1999. I found this to be a lovely little piece. The music is simple but it establishes at once a mood of devotion. It’s a beautifully atmospheric creation. Perhaps it’s also the most "traditional" in the anthology. Like everything else here it receives a very fine performance.

Indeed, Tonus Peregrinus serve Antony Pitts’ music very well indeed throughout this programme. Their singing is pure, well-tuned and immaculate. If, like me, you love to hear a small, expert choir performing with taste, skill and subtlety then you will not be disappointed by this disc. The recorded sound is good and the notes by Jeremy Summerly, to whom Amen is dedicated, are succinct and helpful. Full English texts are supplied.

This collection of pieces indicates that Antony Pitts is an original and thoughtful composer with his own distinctive voice. His music is accessible but I should imagine it makes considerable demands on the performers, not that you’d be aware of that while listening to the assured singing of Tonus Peregrinus. Pitts writes well for the human voice and, crucially, has a discerning eye for a text and for verbal imagery. This is an interesting and satisfying disc, which I’m very happy to recommend.

John Quinn

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