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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


BARGAIN OF THE MONTH

Arvo PÄRT (b.1935)
Passio

Passio Domini Nostri Jesu Christi secundum Joannem (1982)
(St. John Passion)
Robert MacDonald, bass (Jesus)
Mark Anderson, tenor (Pilate)
Tonus Peregrinus/Antony Pitts
Recorded in the Abbey Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, Dorchester-on-Thames, 15th- 18th May and 28th June 2001.
NAXOS 8.555860 [61.50]



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Almost all the best recordings of Pärt's music have involved either the composer himself (as advisor rather than performer) or people who know or have at least interviewed/spoken with him. This superb first budget version of the Passio is no exception and I realised, even before listening, when I read Antony Pitts’ notes that I was about to hear a great interpretation. Pitts, who directs his Tonus Peregrinus ("wandering tone") group with a vision that recalls that of his producer Jeremy Summerly's excellent discs for the same label with the Oxford Camerata, interviewed Pärt for BBC Radio 3 in 2000. Like Paul Hillier before him, he has an acute awareness of what Pärt is about, musically speaking, and this could be one of Naxos's most important releases to date. The original recording, released as long as fourteen years ago, on ECM, the visionary German label (Manfred Eicher, the label's founder, and Pärt are very close, artistically), is a classic but there are things here that do tangibly improve upon it. For example, Pitts' ensemble knocks almost ten minutes off the playing time and, for some listeners, a slightly more animated version of what can sometimes be very static, still music may be an attraction. Also, the ECM disc had no cue points at all; nothing wrong in the sense that it is an integrated whole but not everyone can listen for an hour at a stretch unbroken. Helpfully, the new release provides four tracks, although, no doubt in deference to the composer's artistic wishes, we are told that these are for our convenience only.

The wonderful Gidon Kremer/Keith Jarrett Fratres LP (also ECM) was my introduction to Pärt in the 1980s. I have followed his development with interest, although not always total satisfaction, ever since. My main preference remains for his earlier, although post-serial "tinntinabuli" instrumental music. One or two of his piano miniatures have come to mean a great deal; some of his vocal/choral pieces I can take or leave but Passio is not one of them. In fact it owes a great deal to the aforementioned "tinntinabuli" principle (Pärt's arguably most famous/performed work Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten is a perfect example of this). It is spare, austere, some would say repetitive but, filtered through Schütz, late Stravinsky and, I suppose, Bach, it is music in which, unusually, extreme clarity and intense emotion are not diametrically opposed. Its hieratic atmosphere, so ideally captured on the original ECM disc and hardly less so here, is never totally cold. It bleeds deep spirituality, much more so than some of the later works (Berliner Messe?) and those of the often compared John Tavener. In Passio, of which this is the first recording to take note of Pärt's recent clarifications (rather than revisions), the composer "eschews all word-painting and mood-setting" and "returns to the neutrality of the Latin translation", i.e. everything is pared down to the basics, there is neither room nor need for any floridity. A lot of Pärt's music is beyond words, beyond description and this is more so than most - just buy the disc, it will cost you £5, although if you also buy a disc of the orchestral works first you may find it an easier entry point into his world (try the previous Naxos disc (3rd symphony etc.) or Tasmin Little/Martin Roscoe on HMV/CFP).

Passio is, in conclusion, music that takes us far beyond everyday mundanities, to the true meaning of life (and death). It is music that is of our time but also out of time (timeless?). You ought to hear it and Antony Pitts has provided you with the perfect opportunity. Perhaps if our supposedly religiously motivated leaders listened to this tonight they may act differently tomorrow. I wish. The still, small voice continues to be drowned out …


Neil Horner



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