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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


Arvo PÄRT (b. 1935)
Passio (Passio Domini Nostri Jesu Christi secundum Joannem) (1982)
Robert McDonald, bass (Jesus)
Mark Anderson, tenor (Pilate)
Tonus Peregrinus/Anthony Pitts
Recorded 15-18, 28 May 2001 at the Abbey Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, Dorchester-on-Thames, UK. DDD
NAXOS 8.555860 [61:50]

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Arvo Pärt has become somewhat of an icon amongst lovers of choral music, alongside his British contemporary John Tavener. Born in Estonia in 1935, the composer suffered like many of his colleagues at the restrictive hands of the Soviet party bosses who attempted, thankfully unsuccessfully, to control the artistic output of their composers. Although Pärt’s early work reflects the influence of Schoenberg and the atonal and avant-garde movements of the mid-century, his more recent music reflects his enlivened interest in the medieval masters. His now very widely performed output reflects an austerity that is almost monastic, and a simplicity that would have made even St. Francis of Assisi proud. His work is created from a rigorous set of self-imposed rules derived from a technique known as tintinnabuli, or the mathematically exact connection of one voice to another. For Pärt, all voices are one, and their relationship to one another is seen as an expansion of the one voice, rather than several voices working against each other. Based predominantly on the simple triad, Pärt’s music seems simplistic on the surface, but as one delves into the careful and immaculate way in which he sets a text, one is opened up to a brand new and exciting tonal world.

The Passio from 1982 uses the ancient practice of chanting the biblical narrative that dates back to as early as the fourth century. No Bach passion this, with florid and emotionally riven arias and stormy crowd scenes. Rather, we have an austere telling of the story, the emphasis on the intelligible declamation of the text.

Tonus Peregrinus is a fine ensemble, exhibiting spotless intonation, and a clear sense of the rhythmic ebb and flow of the text. Anthony Pitts favors brisk tempi in this rendition, with his performance coming in nearly fifteen minutes faster than Paul Hillier’s first recording of the work, and the composer’s suggested duration of seventy-five minutes. The evangelist quartet singing is excellent, with careful attention to detail, and spot-on choices in dynamics, articulation and phrasing. The composer makes very few suggestions in the score in relation to these issues; rather he leaves the performers to interpret the music in direct relation to the drama of the text.

Robert McDonald takes what I feel is the perfect tone in his singing of Jesus. Each time he sings, you feel the profundity of his words, and he does a magnificent job at making Jesus seem otherworldly and detached from the folly of his mortal tormenters. His resonant bass shimmers when he sings, and the clarity by which I mean a blessed lack of typical bass ‘woofiness’ of his timbre is breathtaking.

If there is any lapse in judgment in this performance, it is the reedy, throaty singing of tenor Mark Anderson, whose somewhat grating voice makes Pilate more of an annoyance than a character of intelligence and refinement. Anderson does little to project Pilate’s honest fear at what he is forced to do to Jesus. Rather, he comes across as somewhat flippant and disengaged. I found his singing to be a distraction to an otherwise outstanding and well-paced performance. Conductor Anthony Pitts is most careful to allow the reverberant acoustic of his church to complement the sonorous nature of this music.

Sound quality is excellent. Naxos’s engineers capture the warm and lengthy reverberation of the church of St. Peter and St. Paul beautifully. There are now three commercial recordings of this fine work in circulation, and this one is certainly world class. Naxos have gone out of their way to present this recording in fine packaging with a simple yet profound sleeve cover, and the notes by the conductor are superb. Full text and translations are provided, another plus not common to Naxos, but utterly necessary for any choral or vocal recording to be taken seriously.

Now twenty-one years old, this is a work that is coming into its own and holding onto its place as an important composition. Long may it live, and this recording has certainly contributed to its future appreciation.

Kevin Sutton

See also review by Neil Horner



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