Dopo la vittoria [10'00]
Nunc dimittis [7'33]
… which was the son of … [7'30]
I am the true vine [10'15]
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
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
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.
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 …
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
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
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.
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