Arvo Pärt's new disc of choral music conveys a quiet and cumulative power, given...
Matthew Shorter 2003
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.
In his earlier vein, Pärt often reached spiritual feast through the technical famine of systematic patterning and repetition. In the music on this new cd, all composed between 1996 and 2002 and featuring six première recordings, Pärt instead suggests austerity through the use of a much broader and freer palette. This is particularly palpable in the Nunc Dimittis, where gorgeous textures, harmonies and sonorities conjure a feeling of purity and emptiness.
Elsewhere, Pärt has a couple of surprises up his sleeve. The opening track, Dopo la vittoria, begins in sprightly madrigalian form, entirely appropriate to a commission from the City of Milan. It sets an Italian text describing the conception of the Te Deum by Saints Ambrose and Augustine, an unusually postmodern exercise for Pärt, but one which does nothing to detract from the sincerity of the setting, suggesting instead a celebration of the sanctifying power of centuries of worshipful use.
The weirdest moment on the disc comes with My heart's in the Highlands, a setting of a Burns poem which apparently has a highly personal significance for the composer. It's one of only two tracks on the disc which recall Pärt's earlier, more systematic approach, giving Burns' wistful evocation of the bucolic North to a monotone counter-tenor over a strictly controlled organ accompaniment, and making the text suddenly sound like a mystical allegory of longing for the divine.
There's little of the balletic brilliance that Pärt displayed in such works as the Stabat Mater or Tabula Rasa, and mercifully as little of the thunderous severity of his Passio mode. Instead there's a quiet and cumulative power to these works, given performances of luminous purity by Polyphony and Stephen Layton. By the time we arrive at the Salve Regina, a kind of penitential cradle song which closes the disc, we're ready to fall at the feet of the Maker and beg for forgiveness, simultaneously harrowed and consoled.
Like This? Try These:
Schnittke: Concerto (Holst Singers/Layton)
JS Bach: St Matthew Passion (Gabrieli Players/McCreesh)
Ex Cathedra: New World Symphonies