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
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.