Classics for Pleasure presents a good compilation
of sacred contemporary choral works, with pieces by Pärt, Tavener,
Alan Ridout and Gorecki. The combination of music works well,
as all pieces inhabit the same sound-world, drawing on early
music, especially plainchant and Orthodox traditions, and include
an element of contemplative, meditative calm, where the focus
is on the words, and allowing these to shine through the relative
simplicity of the musical setting.
The disc opens with Arvo Pärt, the Estonian composer
whose music has been deeply immersed in the Russian Orthodox
tradition, and whose characteristic and haunting tintinnabuli
style - which all of the pieces featured here portray - was
adopted in the late 1970s. Summa, which commences the
disc, has been arranged for various combinations of instruments
by the composer, but the original 1977 version, as here, is
a setting of the Creed. It is followed by The Lamb, one
of Tavener’s best known and loved works, setting a poem from
William Blake’s mystical Songs of Innocence.
Pärt’s The Beatitudes was composed in 1990
and revised the following year, and is an English setting of
text from St Matthew’s Gospel for chorus (or four soloists),
and organ. This is one of the great treasures of contemporary
church music, with its wonderful spaciousness, revelatory and
timeless air; the masterful built-up and subsequent incredible
release of tension through the cascading organ. This was the
only work on the disc with which I was mildly disappointed –
I felt it was slightly lacklustre, and could have started off
with a greater sense of tension, leading to a bigger climax
and a release both more intense and controlled at the same time.
Tavener’s Funeral Ikos sets words from the
Greek funeral sentences for the burial of priests, and is followed
by Ridout’s Litany. Alan Ridout studied at the Royal
College of Music under Gordon Jacob and Herbert Howells, as
well as with Tippett and Peter Racine Fricker, and was a prolific
composer who produced a wide range of works from church music
through to operas and symphonies. The Litany is dedicated
to the memory of his mother and sets the traditional prayer
of supplication. It starts off slightly starkly but grows into
a beautifully revelatory work. I found the - rather breathy
- bass not entirely convincing, but this lovely work is otherwise
Tavener’s ensuing Two Hymns to the Mother of
God were also written in memory of the composer’s own mother.
The first sets texts from the Liturgy of St Basil, and the second
is from the Vigil Service of the Dormition of the Mother of
God, while Pärt’s Seven Magnificat Antiphons, composed
in 1988 and, like the Beatitudes, revised in 1991, is
a German setting of the seven ‘O’ Antiphons, one of which is
sung each day for seven days before Christmas Eve. Again, expressive
and convincing performances of these.
The penultimate work on the disc, Tavener’s Collegium
Regale setting of the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis,
was commissioned by the Choir of Kings College, Cambridge, and weaves together elements of Orthodox and
Anglican traditions, combining two of the main aspects of the
disc in a fascinating amalgamation.
The disc ends quietly with Gorecki’s Totus tuus.
Like Arvo Pärt, Gorecki was more avant-garde in his earlier
years, but in the 1970s his love of the folk culture of his
native Poland and Roman Catholic Church won through,
and became a prominent feature of his music. Totus tuus
was composed to mark Pope John Paul’s third pilgrimage to Poland in 1987, and was first performed in Warsaw as part of the celebration
of High Mass led by the Pope.
The performance of the Vasari Singers, under their
director, Jeremy Backhouse, is of a consistently high standard
throughout the disc - responsive, sensitive and well-paced –
an important factor in these works that are so much about spaciousness
and reflection. They are not, perhaps, quite as radiant as they
could be, but are all well, if not spectacularly, sung. This
disc makes an excellent introduction to this kind of music.