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Hyperion Records

CDA67375 - Pärt: Triodion & other choral works

Recording details: January 2003
Temple Church, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Mark Brown
Engineered by Julian Millard
Release date: September 2003
DISCID: 5C126108
Total duration: 77 minutes 23 seconds

BEST IN CHORAL CATEGORY - Gramophone Awards 2004
TOP 20 DISCS OF 2003 (BBC Music Magazine/BBC Radio 3 CD REVIEW)
DISC OF THE MONTH (BBC Music Magazine)
EDITOR'S CHOICE (Gramophone)
CD REVIEW Critics' Choice 2003 (BBC Radio 3)

'a triumph … warm melodies and bursts of colourful chords … sublime, ethereal beauty … Polyphony's is a gorgeous performance' (Gramophone)

'Ought to sell by the bucket-load … more than any other composer alive today, Arvo Pärt has given us back the idea of eloquent, beautiful simplicity … Stephen Layton and Polyphony seem to have found an ideal balance of intensity and dignified elegance, of sensuousness and purity. The recordings, too, could hardly be better … this disc deserves the widest possible success' (BBC Music Magazine)

'The singing on this disc is little short of stunning: Polyphony's sense of ensemble is second to none, and conductor Stephen Layton paces these works with an unerring sense of Pärt's instinctive feeling for space and texture. The recording, in London's Temple Church, adds a luminuous aura of its own … a deeply satisfying listening experience' (The Daily Telegraph)

'Layton's superb choir responds eagerly to the different challenges of the various choral traditions from which these pieces derive … Polyphony give meticulous performances … perhaps the most powerful piece is the haunting Burns setting for countertenor, My heart's in the highlands, beautifully performed by David James and Christopher Bowers-Broadbent' (The Sunday Times)

'The heartfelt conviction of these pieces registers profoundly with Stephen Layton, who draws sublime singing from Polyphony … The choir's pursuit of perfection ideally complements the sheer beauty of the music' (Classic FM Magazine)

'this Polyphony recital has been carefully thought-out, and deserves the accolades, notably for the quiet singing and the engulfing, resonant sound. Notes are excellent, and the experience would probably, for 78 minutes, make a believer of an asteroid' (Fanfare, USA)

'Only the most pure and precise of choral groups can raise Arvo Pärt's work to its optimum level of expression. Polyphony and its conductor Stephen Layton make ideal interpreters' (Financial Times)

'There's a line in this disc's title track, from an Orthodox ode addressed to Saint Nicholas: "therewithal hast thou acquired: by humility—greatness, by poverty—riches". This might have been written about Arvo Pärt's compositional technique, here liberated from the minimalist strictures of earlier decades, treading a fine line between agony and ecstasy in a way unparalleled since Bach … Arvo Pärt's new disc of choral music conveys a quiet and cumulative power, given performances of luminous purity by Polyphony and Stephen Layton.' (BBCi)

Triodion & other choral works

A new release from Polyphony, with Stephen Layton at the helm, always brings with it an assurance of singing of the highest possible calibre. Bring together a choir of such quality and the composer responsible for some of the most beautiful, transcendent music ever written, and the resultant disc is surely what must be one of, if not the most spectacular releases of the year.

New works from Arvo Pärt are invariably cherished, and this disc contains no fewer than five world premiere recordings—Dopo la vittoria, Nunc dimittis, Littlemore Tractus, My heart's in the Highlands and Salve Regina. It was recorded in the presence of the enraptured composer earlier this year at the Temple Church, London.

This is a disc of achingly lovely music at its most mesmeric—prepare to be stunned.

Other recommended albums
'Stephen Hough's English Piano Album' (CDA67267)
Stephen Hough's English Piano Album
MP3 £7.99FLAC £7.99ALAC £7.99Buy by post £10.50 Studio Master: FLAC 20-bit 44.1 kHz £8.50ALAC 20-bit 44.1 kHz £8.50 CDA67267  Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
'Walton: Coronation Te Deum & other choral works' (CDA67330)
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'Poulenc: The Complete Chamber Music' (CDA67255/6)
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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Polyphony’s first Hyperion recording of Arvo Pärt’s choral music (CDA66960) focused on music written between 1988 and 1991, a particularly fertile period for the composer which coincided with a surge of international performances and recordings, and resulting acclaim.

Works on that disc, and others such as the large-scale setting of Psalm 51, Miserere, suggested that Pärt was moving into more complex, exotic harmonic territory. With clusters, compound chords and use of the augmented second interval, he seemed to be stretching the crucial, characteristic boundary in his music between dissonance and consonance.

Judging by the more recent music on this disc—all written between 1996 and 2002—that harmonic journey was, for Pärt, something from which he has now returned. The essential purity of the triad remains paramount, and chord progressions in works such as Triodion and Salve Regina seem more diatonically conventional. And although there is less evidence in these pieces of strict ‘tintinnabulation’—the rigidly maintained discourse between stepwise and triadic part-writing—there is enough austerity of structure and harmony in other ways to make it unmistakably ‘Pärtian’.

Polyphony’s first Hyperion disc featured Pärt’s first setting in English (a section from Saint Matthew’s account of The Beatitudes). Prior to that time, 1990, all of Pärt’s sacred vocal works—De Profundis, Magnificat, Miserere, St John Passion, Stabat Mater, Summa, Te Deum—were Latin settings (or in the case of the Magnificat Antiphons and An den Wassern, German). Pärt’s subsequent vocal works, as this disc demonstrates, has him working in other languages, and particularly in English.

Pärt’s travels as an internationally celebrated composer in recent years have often taken him to the United Kingdom and the United States, and he enjoys spending extended periods at his second home near Colchester in Essex—resulting in a noticeably greater fluency with English. But this, he insists, is not the reason for a greater number of English settings. If he is commissioned, he says, by choirs or institutions in the United Kingdom, America, Spain or Italy, for example, it is an ‘obvious and natural choice’ to write in English, Spanish or Italian. (There are exceptions of course: when asked to write a carol in 1990 for that most essentially English of institutions, the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols in the Chapel of King’s College, Cambridge, Pärt produced a setting in Russian.)

As the range of languages widens for Pärt, so does the choice of text become more eclectic and intriguing. This recording features settings in Latin of two ‘standard’ liturgical texts, and as such they are welcome additions to those other Latin works listed above. But the Nunc dimittis and Salve Regina, here, are outnumbered by a fascinating mélange of texts: extracts from an old Russian encyclopaedia of church music and a 160-year-old sermon, a bleak, beautiful Scottish poem, two extraordinary passages from the Gospels of Luke and John, and three Odes from the Orthodox prayer book.

The nearly 30-year journey from being obliged in Soviet-era Estonia to conceal a work’s religious derivation (Summa, a setting of the Credo) to this eclectic range of settings must have been a liberating one indeed.

Dopo la Vittoria
As Pärt admits in a (rare) note accompanying Dopo la vittoria, the search for a text is not necessarily easy or quick; it took six years for him to find the right one for a commission by the City of Milan’s Cultural Department. The fact that the commissioner, Sandro Boccardi, asked him a full six years in advance of the particular anniversary the work was to mark may have contributed to Pärt’s relaxed view on the deadline!

The anniversary in question, in 1997, was the 1600th since the death of Saint Ambrosius, and so Pärt initially turned to the St Ambrosius hymns. ‘For some reason’, he writes, ‘they did not inspire me to begin the composition in question. Gradually I grew to believe I was not able to fulfil this particular task without writing a completely new Te Deum’ (Ambrosius is credited with the authorship of the Te Deum laudamus text). Pärt continues:

I was still looking for the adequate text when by chance I discovered an old church music encyclopaedia written in Russian. In it I found the story of Ambrosius and the scene of St Augustinus’ baptism, performed by Ambrosius. This description fascinated me, and my decision was made promptly … So I used the unaltered Russian text [translated into Italian] and took its first line to become the title of the my work. Its phrasing, dating from the year 1903, sounded to me almost like a poem in prose. The depiction itself has the form of a short two-person scenario, Ambrosius baptizing Augustinus. What I found particularly special and unusual in this story is the fact that Ambrosius, whilst the ceremony was in full swing, began to sing his Te Deum, and Augustinus joined in, easily continuing the chant as if he had known it for ever. And by singing antiphonally they finished off the Te Deum. I was fascinated and deeply influenced by this scene, with two giants of Western culture and Christianity full of spontaneous joy and inspiration, and now felt able to accomplish the commissioned work for the City of Milano in a relatively short time.

So this ‘piccolo cantata’—premiered in Milan’s San Simpliciano Basilica in December 1997 by the Swedish Radio Choir and Tõnu Kaljuste—honours St Ambrosius with a narrative lightness that is relatively unique for Pärt. In contrast with the broader homogeneous sweep of many of his choral settings, this work is sharply defined by sections closely related to the text. The pulsing, staccato briskness of the opening and close suggest the urgent enthusiasm of a storyteller. The Un poco tranquillo section moves the story on at ‘It was two years later’. Low solo voices mark out with antique solemnity the words ‘An unknown early biography of Augustine writes’, followed by equally reverential, organum-like parallel tenor and bass writing. And at three climactic points, Pärt makes particular emphasis of the actual words from Ambrosius’s famous religious text: ‘Te Deum laudamus’ early on, the Italian equivalent a little later (‘Lodiamo Te o Signore’), and the Te Deum’s final verse, ‘In Te, o Signore, ho posto la mia’—a passage as majestic and affirmative as the ‘Amen’ that follows is exquisitely sonorous.

Nunc Dimittis
Pärt set the Magnificat text from St Luke’s gospel in 1989 for choral forces in his home city, Berlin. Perhaps to an Estonian living in Germany, the thought of setting some verses from the succeeding chapter as a companion piece was not wholly obvious or pressing. For a composer raised in, or cognisant of the Anglican music tradition, however, creating a Nunc dimittis to partner a Magnificat would almost seem like an obligation.

Pärt was indeed aware of the prevalence of partnered ‘Mag and Nunc’ settings elsewhere, and of the possible inevitability that he would set the Nunc dimittis in the future (though not consciously as a companion to the Magnificat). So he describes it as a happy coincidence—‘my wish, their wish’—that he was asked to write one for the Choir of St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral, Edinburgh, and their director Matthew Owens. Twelve years after the Berlin Magnificat, this setting of three remarkable verses from Luke Chapter 2 was premiered in a cathedral Evensong during the Edinburgh Festival in August 2001.

It is a text just waiting to be set by a composer of Pärt’s sensibilities – one of serenity and tenderness, followed by transcendent, sparkling joy. The same still beauty that he achieved back in 1977 with the second part of Tabula Rasa, or the Stabat Mater in 1985, is present in the opening of this Nunc dimittis; and all three share the same stepwise downward sighs and intermingling dissonances of upper voices. In the equally placid ‘Gloria Patri’ (interestingly, Pärt’s Magnificat doesn’t feature this customary adjunct to the Evening Canticles), the two upper parts work against each other in stepwise ascent, then descent, around a contra-bass C sharp/G sharp pedal—playing with dissonance and consonance in the same way that Bach so often did. Centrally, Pärt prepares the ground for a radiant climax on ‘lumen ad revelationem’ (‘a light to lighten’) with a measured procession of gradually expanding phrases and anticipations of the brief, majesterial shift from C sharp minor to major.

… which was the Son of …
While the Magnificat from Luke Chapter 1—the Song of Mary—and the Nunc dimittis from Luke Chapter 2—the Song of Simeon—are obviously set-able texts for a composer, the same cannot necessarily be said of Luke’s Genealogy of Jesus in the following chapter. To some composers indeed, this long list of names might seem no more enticing to set than the proverbial telephone directory.

For Pärt, however, it was more than just a technical challenge or the possibility of ritual-like musical repetition. The attraction to this text (in its ‘traditional and authoritative’ translation, according to Pärt) came bound up with the nature of the commission itself—the singers the piece was for and the country it was premiered in.

Pärt was asked to write a work for the youth choir Voices of Europe, gathered in Reykjavík in 2000 to celebrate its status as European Capital of Culture that year. The choir featured ten singers each from the nine previous Cultural Capitals, aged between 18 and 23. Pärt’s first decision, therefore, was to set a text in English, Europe’s de facto ‘lingua franca’ as it were.

Pärt had visited Iceland previously, and was impressed by the country’s highly educated population, their high levels of interest in European literature and, he noted, the unusually large number of writers amongst them. Add to that the composer’s interest in the deep-rooted Icelandic tradition of passing on names from one generation to generation, and his wish to impart this biblical ‘story of civilisation’ to young people, and verses 23 to 38 of Luke 3 became a compelling text. To him, one senses, this is not merely a fabulous list of ancient names, a biblical truth since challenged by Darwin; there is something germinal and sacred about it—gospel indeed.

Needless to say, Pärt ensures this text avoids monotony through variance of character and a distinct climax along the way. After an opening whose sprung rhythms give it the assuredness of a French-style baroque ouverture, the piece takes off with the same narrative urgency of Dopo la vittoria. Basses are answered by the upper three voices—shades of folksiness and Spirituals here?—and after about a third of the text is deftly dispatched in this way, a more mellifluous section in 9/8 takes over. A fluid interchange of 4/4 and 9/8 sections takes us right through the climactic trio of Jacob, Isaac and Abraham—wondrous C major emphasis on the last of these. And through use of the surprisingly familiar ‘cycle of fifths’ harmonic sequence, the oldest ancestors of Jesus are ever more quickly revealed, almost breathlessly to reach the ultimate, fundamental truth—‘which was the son of Adam, which was the son of …’—and here Pärt sets it all out with respectful simplicity and resolution—‘… God.’

I am the true vine
Written for the 900th anniversary of the foundation of Norwich Cathedral in 1996, this setting from Chapter 15 of St John’s Gospel shows Pärt at his most controlled. Inspired by the strength and simplicity of the metaphor, Pärt sets up a pattern of notes that is strictly repeated six times throughout the span of the work. Rhythms alter each time, to suit the text, and bass and soprano pedal notes enhance the fourth repetition—but the pitches remain the same, creating a sinuous continuity that Pärt likens to the leaf and branch patterns on oriental carpets. Within this framework of pitches, the vine metaphor is further reinforced by the systematic adding and subtracting of voices. One voice part sings one note, another joins them for the second, another for the third. The pattern is rigorous—1, 2, 3, 3, 2, 1, 2, 3, 3, etc—creating a smooth switchback from lower to upper registers. Like a number of Pärt’s pieces which are governed by such compositional conceits, the expressive reality in performance is quite unlike the seemingly bleak prospect on paper. And, as ever, Pärt knows how to fashion the conclusion perfectly.

Littlemore Tractus
With its typically homogeneous, flowing organ accompaniment and intermittent homophonic choral lines, this setting has the feel of a stretched out Anglican hymn; not inappropriately so, as it sets words from a sermon preached on 19 February 1843 by one of the nineteenth century’s most influential Anglican poet-priests, John Henry Newman. Pärt is not familiar with Newman’s greatest musical memorial, Elgar’s setting of The Dream of Gerontius; but he is acquainted with the Vicar of the Church of St Mary the Virgin and St Nicholas, Littlemore (near Oxford), where Newman lived and worked from 1840 to 1846. And it was Reverend Bernhard Schünemann who asked him to write this Littlemore Tractus, to commemorate the anniversary of Newman’s birth on 21 February 2001.

In 1976 Pärt responded to the death of Benjamin Britten (whom he never met) with the composition of one of his most powerful—and disarmingly simple—works, the Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten for strings and tubular bell. Twenty-two years later, he was able to come close to Britten again through a commission from Lancing College to mark their 150th anniversary. Not only was Britten’s partner Peter Pears an alumnus of this Sussex school; Britten had also written the Christmas cantata St Nicolas for the 100th anniversary, back in 1948. St Nicolas is a patron saint of Lancing, and so Pärt sought a further connection for his commission. He selected three Odes from the Orthodox Prayer Book—one to ‘Jesus the Son of God’, one to the ‘Most Holy Birth-giver of God’, and the last to the ‘Holy Saint Nicholas’ (Britten’s titular Saint lacks the ‘h’).

Each Ode is characteristically solemn, each is statically homophonic, and each builds to a climax prior to the mantra-like repetition of the final entreaty. All is stripped bare at this point: harmonic movement halts, silence becomes as important as sound, and centuries of mysticism are rolled back as Pärt communes with an ancient Orthodox past.

My heart’s in the Highlands
Pärt would himself have been a teenage schoolboy when St Nicolas was first performed in 1948, and school would surely have been very different for him in post-War Soviet Estonia than in Sussex. But there is one way in which things would have been the same it seems, and it is surprising. Russian was the compulsory second language in Estonia at that time, but other foreign languages were learnt too. Pärt didn’t necessarily learn to speak much English—and it wouldn’t have been looked upon favourably by the authorities if he had done so—but he did learn by heart much English-language poetry (as they would have done at Lancing too). And the poem he first learnt, and came to love most of all, was one that lilts and yearns for somewhere else, Robert Burns’s My heart’s in the Highlands. As ‘the text that has resonated within me the whole of my life’, it was an obvious choice for setting to music ‘as a small present for my beloved David James’. It is this singer’s distinctive, haunting countertenor voice that Pärt has appreciated in The Hilliard Ensemble’s many performances of his music since their first BBC recording in the mid-1980s.

The organ part is strictly ‘tintinnabulist’, with its stepwise bass and triadic upper line. The vocal line, too, picks out just the three notes of the F minor triad—one for each verse. But although its building blocks are the most minimal on this disc, Pärt’s audacious setting perfectly captures the bleakness and longing of the poem.

Salve Regina
Like the Littlemore Tractus, Pärt’s setting of the Salve Regina has an extended hymn-like feel to it. Typically, it builds very gradually to a late, majestic climax—unison vocal lines at the outset, broader harmonies later, some intriguing eccentricities in the organ part along the way.

It was the wish of Hubert Luthe, Bishop of Essen Cathedral, that this particular text be set in honour of the building’s priceless golden Madonna. The premiere was in May 2002, to mark both the Bishop’s seventy-fifth birthday and Essen’s own 1150th anniversary.

Meurig Bowen © 2003

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