Tonus Peregrinus

Tuesday 19 January 2010

A cappella octet Tonus Peregrinus serves up a concoction of English choral sounds to warm the heart and revive the senses: beautiful early English music spiced up with new motets by the ensemble’s director Antony Pitts, and a seasonably late carol by Adrian Jack which lends this programme its name.


A concert in a church consisting entirely of unaccompanied English choral music is some people's idea of heaven, for others it is hell with the sole amenity of a bagpipe drone.

Antony Pitts, director of the Tonus Peregrinus vocal octet, would appear to be aware of the pitfalls of planning his event and he has devised a programme which amalgamates music ranging from the 15th century with contemporary music, the latter mainly of his own composition.

The opening of the concert was rather confusing. The programme showed 2 separate items; the first by Mr Pitts and the second by the 16th Century composer John Sheppard. As there was a near imperceptible pause between them, we had to await Mr Pitts's explanation at the end of the second item to learn that this was his intention, and his method of welding the new with the old. He then embarked on an explanation of the forms and techniques used in the construction of the vocal music we were to hear.

Sadly where I was sitting, I only caught fragments such as, "false relation" and as I tried to listen, I noticed that some of my neighbours appeared to have switched to "stand by" with their eyes either glazed or closed. The question arises, "Do we have to understand the technicalities of Music in order to enjoy it?" This vocal ensemble is unlike any that I have heard before. Latterly it has been customary for an ensemble to be built on voices that had a like timbre, but Tonus differs radically in this aspect, particularly in the upper voices. One could almost hear the distinctive sounds of a woodwind section including a saxophone, whilst the four lower voices seemed to represent a string backing. From time to time, male solos emerged showing different colours, but the contrasts were less obvious.

The ensemble was always perfectly in tune and secure even when coping with some extremely tricky techniques and one was never concerned that there would be an offending squawk or a "domino entry" in a pregnant pause. They also had splendid rapport, so why then did Mr Pitts conduct? They were reading from scores and so the role of a prompter was not required and the tradition of small ensemble singing rarely requires vigorous direction. I felt that the presentation was marred by such constant energetic movement. Mr Pitts's compositions were all excellent. He displayed an ability to vary his style to suit the mood he wished to either set or follow and there were seamless joins between the items when necessary.

Does the programme format work?

I believe it does.

Do the mixed timbres work?

In general they do, but perhaps they become a little too "West End Stage" for the older music.

Was this a successful concert?

It was difficult to judge from the applause, which is so often an audience routine and it conflicted with some of the body language around me during the singing. But the four "Hymnes and Songs of the Church" by Gibbons and Mr Pitts's music were truly memorable.

Adrienne Fox