It's been 11 years since Polyphony's last disc of music by Arvo Pärt, the much-garlanded Triodion (reviewed in November 2003). Suffice to say it's been well worth the wait, as this disc of Pärt's choral music is one of the most singularly beautiful recordings I've heard this year. As Meurig Bowen notes in the excllent CD booklet, Polyphony's first two discs of Pärt's music featured works from a relatively circumscribed period: the first (CDA66960, recorded in 1997), including the wondrous Berliner Messe, dating from 1980-90, the second dating from 1996-2002. This third disc presents music that stretches across almost five decades, from the pre-tintinnabuli period Solfeggio (1964), one of the most unexpected works in the the composer's canon, to the most recent piece, Virgencita (2012).
In the opening work, Peace upon you, Jerusalem (Pärt's only psalm setting in English), conductor Stephen Layton draws singing of beguiling purity from Polyphony's sopranos and altos. In a typically Pärtian coup de théâtre, at the appearance of the word 'love' in the final two lines of the text ('For love of the house of Yahweh our God / I will pray for your well-being'), the soprano voices hold on to this word so that it acts as a pedal note, stretching it out for almost a full minute until the piece fades into silence.
Commissioned by Durham University on the occasion of its 175th anniversary in 2007, the delightful miniature Morning Star takes as its text a prayer above the tomb of St Bede in Durham Cathedral: 'Christ is the morning star, who when the night of this world is past brings to his saints the promise of the light of life and opens everlasting day'. In this luminous performance by the full choir it shines especially brightly. Following beautifully controlled interpretations of The woman with the alabaster box (an exceprt from St Matthew's Gospel) and the hypnotic reiterations of The deer's cry (a setting of St Patrick's Breastplate), we switch from English to Spanish, with the first recording of Virgencita, one of only two works by Pärt that sets a Spanish text (the other being the 1998 psalm setting Como cierva sedienta). Invited to Mexico by the Mexican ambassador to Estonia, Pärt was inspired to write a work based on the apparition of the Virgin Mary, the so-called Virgin of Guadalupe. As the composer has written, 'The happy anticipation of being in Mexico very soon and the name Guadalupe left me no peace; they inspired me to write a choral work which I took atlong as a present to the people of Mexico: Virgencita'. As performed by Polyphony, it's really one of the loveliest gifts imaginable
Dating from Pärt’s early avant-garde period, Solfeggio sets the notes of the C major scale to the syllables of the tonic sol-fa, with glowing note clusters formed by the overlapping of entries. Here, the choir fully conveys the extraordinary sense of atemporality that makes this piece so prescient of the later tintinnabuli style. The choir demonstrates crystal-clear articulation and remarkable dynamic control in Zwei Beter (a setting from St Luke’s Gospel), while the slow-moving, syllabic declamation of Tribute to Caesar is movingly done. Dating from 1977, Pärt’s setting of the Latin ‘Credo’ was given the neutral title Summa, as he was obliged to hide the religious nature of his works during the Soviet era. Layton and Polyphony sculpt the beautiful undulation of the melodic line and the unbroken flow of the music with such purity of expression that it ranks as one of the greatest interpretations of this oft-recorded work.
Pärt’s setting of Church Slavonic, a language used exclusively in ecclesiastical texts, is heard to memorable effect in ‘Memento’, Ode VII excerpted from the imposing Kanon Pokajanen (1997). Featuring a sound-world that places it within the illustrious tradition of Russian Orthodox Church music, Polyphony illustrates the way in which the tintinnabuli style can absorb new textural and harmonic approaches
In setting a text dedicated to St Nicholas of Myra, the performance o Alleluia-Tropus is especially moving, with this a cappella version representing another first recording. A perfectly balanced reading of Da pacem, Domine brings the disc to a hushed conclusion.
The excellent recording took place in All Hallows Church in Gospel Oak, London, in August 2013, in the presence of the composer. This is a stunning addition to Pärt’s ever-increasing discography and is unreservedly recommended.