'A landmark recording. Go and buy it' (Choir & Organ)
'Outstandingly good on each front: clarity, balance, intonation, timbre, dynamic and textural control and, perhaps most important of all, feeling' (Classic CD)
'Committed and definitive performances of this intense music' (Organists' Review)
'Polyphony's singing is immensely cultivated; bright, clear, immaculately phrased, and gorgeously balanced' (American Record Guide)
'Pärt's music remains an object of unstinting wonder' (BBC Music Magazine)
Here is some of the most spiritually uplifting music of our generation, sung by that most virtuosic of choirs, Polyphony. Arvo Pärt (paralleled in England by John Tavener) has succeeded in capturing the attention of a broad public through his consummate ability to weave a sense of inevitable power into music of fundamental simplicity.
The impressive Berlin Mass which opens the disc was written in 1990, the Credo being a fascinating major-key reworking of the earlier minor-mode Summa; very much an expression of joy at the lifting of the Soviet embargo on 'sacred' music in Estonia. Annum per Annum is a monumental work for solo organ and is here performed on the organ of St Paul's Cathedral: a thoroughly exhilarating experience. The disc ends with the masterpiece De Profundis. This most powerful of texts draws from Pärt an inexorable momentum from a beginning almost out of nothing to a devastating climax.
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What could be more impassioned and dramatic in late-twentieth-century music than the centrally placed ‘O Schlüssel Davids’ in the Seven Magnificat Antiphons, with its ecstatically pleading multiple layers of closely packed harmony? Or the fortissimo exclamation of the seventh antiphon—‘O Emmanuel, our king and teacher’—where repeated blocks of A major are transfigured by simply-got suspensions in the middle parts?
It is ultimately Pärt’s finest achievement that he can deliver intense, direct, sometimes sensual emotion with the barest and simplest of materials—perhaps analogous to the Norman and early-Gothic church architecture for which he exhibits such affinity. Stone and glass; structure and space; eloquence through simplicity.
Such eloquence and simplicity shines through in all this tintinnabulist work, where the music’s procedures essentially comprise an extravagantly pure union of the (mostly) diatonic scale and arpeggio, and always-resourceful manoeuvrings of the triad. The Agnus Dei of the Berlin Mass, for example, features alternating vocal strands which are bleak on paper, yet sensual and yielding in performance. And its conclusion, through the simplest of devices, is particularly warm; paired upper and lower voices sing the same music but a crotchet apart, creating the serene collisions and harmonic expressivity for which Pärt seems to have the subtlest of ears. (A similar device occurs in John Tavener’s extraordinary Hymn to the Mother of God, though the two choirs here are further temporally separated.)
And alongside the drama and awesome climax of some of this disc’s music is Pärt’s exquisite sense of control and restraint. Texts like the Magnificat or Sanctus—so many times set by his predecessors in a wave of unbounded joy—acquire a more muted sense of wonderment in Pärt’s world: the slightly chilled, restrained ecstasy of the former, with the pensive presence of a C pedal throughout; the sombre processional of the latter, sopranos absent, and with no upbeat transition into the Hosanna.
If Pärt has sidestepped conventionality in the setting of some texts, he is closer to the norm in a work such as De Profundis. With a certain body of precedent from earlier times for musical pictorialism, the deep, furry tones of contra-bass voices emerge ‘de profundis’. The booming, thumping intercessions of the bass drum serve perhaps as a primeval heartbeat. And, ever so gradually, the music builds in texture and dynamic level to a climax of awesome proportions, matching the Psalmist’s journey from anguish and despair to a firm hope of redemption. It is a work of perfect structure and immaculately achieved expression.
Meurig Bowen © 1998