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Hyperion Records

CDA68056 - Pärt: Choral Music

Recording details: August 2013
All Hallows, Gospel Oak, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Adrian Peacock
Engineered by David Hinitt
Release date: October 2014
DISCID: 930E920C
Total duration: 62 minutes 11 seconds

Choral Music

Stephen Layton and Polyphony have a long and fruitful relationship with the music of Arvo Pärt. Their recording of Triodion and other choral works (CDA67375) won a Gramophone Award and became a cult classic. The extraordinary purity of Polyphony’s singing is the perfect vehicle for music of such clean, elemental simplicity, such cathartic calm.

This third Pärt album from Stephen Layton and Polyphony reaches right back, intriguingly, to the composer’s youthful modernist phase and spans nearly five decades—from 1963 to 2012—in the process. As with the album Triodion, it reflects an increasingly broad spread of languages and sources in Pärt’s chosen texts. Latin, German and English are joined here by Church Slavonic and Spanish. A range of biblical texts are set alongside ancient prayers.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Arvo Pärt’s music is simple in its means, and powerful in its effect. It has its own very distinctive personality, one that could hardly belong to any other living composer. He is as close to being a ‘household name’ as any classical composer in this lower-brow century can hope to be. And his music is much imitated—invariably by lesser composers, and particularly those writing library music or low-nutrition TV and film scores. Add to all that the less generous appraisals of Arvo Pärt’s music—‘aural pillows to sink into’ … ‘sacred take-away’—and you have a composer who divides opinions as much as he sells recordings, fills concert venues and nourishes the soul.

As time advances, our retrospective field of view on Pärt’s output widens ever further. When his music first became widely known around the world, through the first recordings in the early 1980s, his attractively pure, triadic ‘tintinnabulist’ style was only a decade or so old. Its first incarnation, the strikingly simple—and subsequently, it has turned out, hugely influential—piano piece Für Alina (1976), already feels part of musical history. The reception of Pärt’s music has evolved, too, since Polyphony first recorded his music for Hyperion (the Berliner Messe and Magnificat, first issued back in 1998).

That first recording, together with its 2003 successor Triodion, featured music from a relatively narrow timespan of Pärt’s output, 1980–90 and 1996–2002 respectively. This third Pärt album from Stephen Layton and Polyphony reaches right back, intriguingly, to the composer’s youthful modernist phase and spans nearly five decades—from 1963 to 2012—in the process. As with the album Triodion, it reflects an increasingly broad spread of languages and sources in Pärt’s chosen texts. Latin, German and English are joined here by Church Slavonic and Spanish. A range of biblical texts are set alongside ancient prayers, an excerpt from the Orthodox Canon of Repentance and, in the case of Solfeggio, the constituent monosyllables of the solfège scale, ‘do, re, mi …’.

Pärt has set a number of Psalms over the years, beginning with the strikingly miserable De profundis (No 130) for male voices, organ and percussion in 1980. Subsequent settings include the German An den Wassern (No 137) in 1984, the large-scale Miserere (Psalm 51) in 1989 and Psalms 117 and 131 in Church Slavonic in 1997. Peace upon you, Jerusalem is Pärt’s only English Psalm setting—of Psalm 122—and uses the New Jerusalem Bible translation, with its references to Yahweh for Jehovah and, perhaps deliberate for Pärt, its deviation from the much better-known words of the King James translation, ‘I was glad when they said unto me’, used by Purcell and Parry. In fact, Pärt’s title takes us a stage further from ‘I was glad’ associations, and the words ‘Peace upon you, Jerusalem’ do not actually appear at all in the text.

Pärt made this delightfully fresh and translucently textured setting in 2002 for the outstanding Estonian TV Girls Choir and its conductor Aarne Saluveer. (How many countries in the world, but for a choir-crazy one such as Estonia, would have a choral group allied to its television network?) Throughout, Pärt skilfully investigates different combinations of soprano/alto texture and compass, and yet again pulls off the trick of saying something important through touching simplicity.

A number of pieces on this recording are the result of commissions to mark significant anniversaries. In the case of Morning star it was the 175th birthday of the north-English Durham University in 2007 (although the first performance was given by the University’s choir in London’s church of St Martin-in-the-Fields in December that year). Just as he has repeatedly shown a knack of selecting place- and people-specific texts for such occasional pieces, Pärt chose a prayer inscribed above the tomb of St Bede—better known perhaps as the scholar The Venerable Bede—in Durham’s mighty cathedral.

In his monolithic setting of the Passio (St John Passion), Pärt had already established in 1982 a syllabically deadpan, recitative-like way of story-telling. Though not so strictly following Pärt’s tintinnabulist route-map of combined stepwise and triadic movement, The woman with the alabaster box, a piece of story-telling from St Matthew’s gospel, has a similar crystalline simplicity. Adjacent thirds interweave against long-held notes, creating subtle clashes and resolutions. The choral texture unites with pianissimo emphasis for Christ’s final words ‘Verily I say unto you …’. The vocal compass expands, both upwards and downwards, for effect. The controlled serenity and subtlety of expression are, again, mesmerizing. This 1997 setting was composed for the 350th anniversary of the Karlstad Diocese in Sweden, and was first performed by the Erik Westberg Vocal Ensemble in Karlstad Cathedral.

The deer’s cry dates from the same year as Morning star, 2007. Pärt responded to a commission from the Louth Contemporary Music Society in Ireland by setting the closing verse of ‘St Patrick’s Breastplate’. Known also as the Lorica of St Patrick, this text may, or may not, date back to Patrick’s own lifetime in the fifth century. A Lorica, taking its name from the Latin for a shield or armour, came to be known as a verbal inscription on the shield of a knight, a prayer for recitation before going into battle. In the case of St Patrick, the story goes that he and his followers evaded ambush in a forest by reciting this prayer, and by their foes seeing them pass by as a doe and twenty fawns; hence the Lorica’s other name, The deer’s cry. With the piece’s rootedness in A minor emphasizing the incantatory nature of the prayer, a gently cumulative quality rises to a fairly un-Pärtian descending sequence on ‘Christ in every eye that sees me, Christ in every ear that hears me’.

One of only two instances to date of Pärt setting a Spanish text, Virgencita is inspired by the legend of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Just a decade after the Spanish conquest of Mexico, an apparition of the Virgin Mary was witnessed in 1531 at Tepeyac, near modern-day Mexico City. A celebrated pictorial representation of the Guadalupe Virgin in the Basilica of Our Lady in Mexico City has since become the world’s most-visited Marian shrine. With its initially muted dynamic range, a tentative sense of wonder builds cumulatively to a scrunchy, forte climax on ‘Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe’. The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir premiered Virgencita in Leon, Mexico, in 2012, conducted by Tõnu Kaljuste.

The standard story, the conventional wisdom, of Pärt’s compositional life is that he started out as an avant-garde bad boy, all black-note complexity, screeching, cacophonous, serial nastiness, went quiet for nearly a decade, and came through the other side writing beautiful, other-worldly, white-note loveliness. There are certainly Pärt recordings that confirm this story, the inclusion of one or two early, avant-garde works on otherwise easy-on-the-ear albums serving to shock and jar—the aural equivalent of a brutalist concrete multi-storey car park sitting alongside a Regency terrace or medieval church. The inclusion of Solfeggio on this recording, surprisingly, has no such effect. Composed in 1963, the same year as his densely dissonant orchestral work Perpetuum mobile, Solfeggio is definitively Pärt’s sparest work from those early years. Using the C major scale as an ascending tone row, a strict serial process gives a tantalizing glimpse of the composer’s later choral style. The spirit of composure and control fifteen or twenty years hence is presaged right here, in the midst of his atonal investigations.

The notes of the scale are literally spelled out in solfège by each successive vocal entry (in a very different way to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s ‘do, re, mi’ equivalent in The Sound of Music four years earlier). Each note is held for the same duration throughout, and each follows a minim later than the previous one. The adjacent tones and semitones of the scale are transposed into successive sevenths and ninths, creating layers of dissonance which belie the simplicity and logic of the compositional process. And here the spirits of Pärt-the-modernist and Pärt-the-tintinnabulist converge. Serial music, famously, requires rigid adherence to compositional ground rules, and Pärt’s early scores, such as this one, indicate such scrupulous precision. The same exactitude and discipline is there with his tintinnabulist works. It is just that one set of rules enables, or demands, great complexity—and the other, great simplicity.

Zwei Beter, a setting of the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican from St Luke’s Gospel, was written in 1998 for the Hanover Girls Choir. Pärt makes a clear distinction in his writing between the Gospel narrative, the prayers of the Pharisee and the Publican, and Jesus’ concluding analysis of the parable. He reserves the most distinctive passages for the Publican’s show of humility—closely parallel triplets in as many as six parts—and the imposing, thick-harmonied words of Christ. The final ‘Amen’, needless to say, is charming and distinctive too.

With the same steady, syllabic declamation as The woman with the alabaster box, Tribute to Caesar was written as a companion piece—also setting narrative from St Matthew’s Gospel—to mark the 350th anniversary of the Karlstad Diocese in Sweden. Of particular note is the way Pärt fractures the vocal line, picking out single notes for different voice parts to contribute to the broader texture; a kind of hocketing or pointillism that the composer makes his own.

The only work to date from the 1970s on this recording, Summa is one of Pärt’s first tintinnabulist works, emerging early on from his stylistic ground-zero. It is a setting of the Latin Mass Credo, but coming from a time when Pärt was still living in Soviet-era Estonia; its title conceals its religious nature. With its voice-pairings, upper and lower, of stepwise and triadic movement, it is a textbook display of Pärt’s newly established tintinnabulist principles—neutrally flowing, stripped back, quasi-medieval.

‘Many years ago’, Pärt wrote in a programme note for Memento, ‘when I first became involved in the tradition of the Russian Orthodox Church, I came across a text that made a profound impression on me—although I cannot have understood it at the time. It was the Canon of Repentance (Kanon Pokajanen). Since then I have often returned to these verses, slowly and arduously seeking to unfold their meaning.’ Memento (1994) was one of Pärt’s first attempts at this, becoming Ode VII of the Kanon Pokajanen when it was joined three years later by the rest of Pärt’s complete setting. The Church Slavonic text inevitably affects the nature of the piece, its character imbued with the sombre ritual of the Orthodox tradition, and unwaveringly fixed upon the pitch centre of D.

First performed in Bari in 2008, Alleluia-Tropus is a setting of a Christian text dedicated to St Nicholas of Myra (an Ancient Greek town now found in the Antalya province in Turkey). The original scoring is for choir and eight cellos (ad lib.), and this a cappella version omits the cellos.

Existing in various versions, choral and instrumental, Da pacem, Domine, from 2004/2006, alternates rhythmically patterned, harmonically static writing with cadential figures of parallel chords. The first of these styles is closely related to Pärt’s 1976 organ work Pari intervallo, and if you are familiar with the unwavering nature of this piece, the cadential digressions in Da pacem, Domine are surprising, even unsettling. The conductor Paul Hillier nicely describes the deliberate poise of the Pari intervallo-like parts of this piece when he writes that it has ‘a near harmonic stasis in which each pitch is carefully placed in position like stones in a Zen garden’.

Meurig Bowen © 2014

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