|Site review by Geohominid April 9, 2012
Performance: Sonics (S/MC): /
|Until the late 1970s, Arvo Pärt was a little known Estonian composer. He and contemporaries Henryk Górecki (Poland) and John Tavener (England) began working in a style which became dubbed "Holy Minimalism". Through recordings and feverish dissemination by classical music broadcasting stations, the music of Pärt and the others even reached the Top Ten. Who has not heard Pärt's 'Spiegl im Spiegl'? Such fame did not sit well with the Soviet occupiers of Estonia, and Pärt moved his family to Vienna in 1980, taking Austrian citizenship. A few years later he relocated to West Berlin, where he still resides, well into his 70s and regarded as one of the most important composers of sacred music today.
Paul Hillier, one of the busiest and most lauded international choirmasters, is a noted exponent of Pärt's music. He is also noted for his ability in programme-making, and here under the apt title of "Creator Spiritus", he has assembled what he calls "chamber music" composed by Pärt, ranging from the 1960s to 2008. He is, however, using the term in its widest sense; there are only two pieces (Psalom, Solfeggio) for string quartet, the rest are for a chamber choir "a cappella" or accompanied by the string quartet or a string trio. A number of early works for choir were adapted by Pärt in the last decade or so: they were given string accompaniments or set entirely for quartet. The interplay of strings and choirs certainly makes for an interesting and tonally rich programme.
Hiller fields two of his specialist mixed-voice choirs, Theatre of Voices (5 voices, including a counter-tenor; organist) and Ars Nova Copenhagen (16 voices). Both are much recorded and highly acclaimed, and have in common Elsa Torp as lead soprano. The NYYD String Quartet is part of a collective of top quality Estonian musicians who play in ensembles of various configurations; their main interest is contemporary music.
Pärt's minimalist technique is called by him "tintinnabulation" and involves composing two simultaneous voices as one line, one voice moving stepwise from and to a central pitch, first up then down, and the other sounding the notes of the triad. It often involves repetitions of phrases which are subtly varied. For example, 'Most Holy Mother of God' (of Orthodox origin), consists of one line of text repeated 17 times, but sung by different solo voices or combinations, until it is chanted as if by a congregation, then finally as a richly textured and harmonised, deeply satisfying, conclusion.
'The Deer's Cry' (sung by Ars Nova) sets a text by St Patrick (patron Saint of Ireland) in 433AD. Following an ambush by bandits while travelling with his followers, Patrick led his men in chanting it as they ran through the woods. They were transformed into a deer and 24 fauns which saved them. There are many silences in this piece, another avocation of Pärt's, as he speaks of "silent text" and views silence as part of music. The fervent repetition of pleas "Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ in me..." is indeed dramatic, especially as the transformation is depicted.
Pärt's reputation as a bearded recluse, an ascetic "priest", is belied by those who know him. He has a good sense of humour, and I suspect he was exercising this when writing 'My Heart's in the Highlands', a poem by C18th Scottish folk-legend, Robert Burns. There is no real tune, but Else Torp's sweet voice floats with purity over a charming 2 line organ solo, beguilingly played by Christopher Bowers-Broadbent. The piece is a thousand miles away from Scotland, but produces delight all of its own.
The NYYD string players play with golden tone and are clearly in tune with Pärt's idiom, whether playing their string quartet pieces or accompanying choral works. With Hillier's authoritative guidance, the choirs produce excellent interpretations. This is especially true in the culminating 'Stabat Mater' with three soloists and NYYD Quartet, certainly one of Pärt's most searching pieces. He digs deeply into this ancient sacred text, as do the choir. Charmingly, it has a few instrumental interludes which up the pace and fairly skip along as in the Stabat Mater's Baroque settings. Uncharacteristic for Pärt, but none the less pleasing to the ears.
This disc sits in a two-fold digipac with a suitably smart but minimal design. The thick multilingual booklet has commentaries by Paul Hillier, biographies and full texts.
Harmonia Mundi's DSD recording, bathed in the ample glow of a Copenhagen church, is flawless. In multichannel, the producers have subtly exploited spatial relationships between voices, choirs and instrumentalists to ravishing effect. Thus Pärt's simple but amazingly eloquent music is accoutred as on few other recordings. It left this listener in serene peace of mind, and that is no bad thing in a busy life.
Copyright © 2012 John Miller and SA-CD.net