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.
from notes by Meurig Bowen © 2003