Pärt’s setting of the St. John Passion is an audacious work.
It was written just after he and his family had emigrated from
Estonia (then Communist controlled) to live in the West. At the
time of its composition it marked the culmination of the years
he had spent absorbing the styles of plainchant and medieval music
(of course, subsequently he has developed this style of composition
still further in a succession of vocal works.) The audacity of
the composition lies in the extreme severity and austerity of
the music. Though there is drama aplenty under the surface the
music, at first hearing, seems extremely spare and bleak. This
is a very conscious decision on the part of the composer who wants
the listener to concentrate on the text and its meaning. In the
notes accompanying this release Pärt is quoted thus: "[the
text is] more important than the music" because "the
text is stronger and it has given food for hundreds and thousands
of composers, and it will continue so."
Pärt humbly sees his music as a carrier for the text, the
vehicle by which it is conveyed to the listener. Not for him the
reflective arias, commenting and meditating on the story, which
are such a crucial element in the structure of Bach’s Passions.
Furthermore the narration, assigned to a quartet of singers who
sing sometimes together in various combinations and sometimes
alone, is almost self-effacing in that it uses a relatively narrow
selection of notes. The narrators are accompanied by an ensemble
consisting at various times of violin, oboe, cello and bassoon.
There are two other soloists, taking the parts of Christ and Pilate,
both of whom are accompanied by an organ. Finally the crowd is
represented by a small choir. Despite such economy of means Pärt’s
piece is truly a case of multum in parvo.
new recording is by the British group, Tonus Pelegrinus who take
their name from the Latin name for a centuries-old psalm tone
(literally it means "wandering tone"). They face daunting
competition from the 1988 première recording for ECM by
Paul Hillier and the Hilliard Ensemble, a recording made in the
presence of the composer. Comparisons reveal a number of pros
and cons for each version.
first thing to say is that the Naxos issue enjoys a very clear
advantage over its older rival in terms of presentation. The ECM
release is decidedly minimalist in this respect. The Latin text
and translations into German and English are supplied and, basically,
that’s it. There are no notes whatsoever (unless ECM have relented
since I bought my copy years ago.) Frankly, this is outrageously
unhelpful, especially to the listener coming new to the work.
Naxos, on the other hand, have an extremely useful and informative
note by Antony Pitts himself, liberally sprinkled with quotations
from the composer. The Naxos issue also gives the full text though
the translation is in English only. However, a little touch that
I like is that each Gospel verse is numbered. A second factor
that may weigh more heavily with some listeners is that, for study
purposes, the Naxos disc has four separate tracks whereas the
ECM disc has no breaks whatsoever. In all honesty this probably
doesn’t matter too much because this work is emphatically not
one into which to dip but some people may welcome the extra convenience
afforded by Naxos. So far, then, the Naxos release is well ahead
in musical terms the balance rather tips back in favour of the
Hilliard Ensemble in several respects. There’s an astonishing
difference in the timing of the two performances. As you can see,
Tonus Pelegrinus relate the Passion story in just less than 62
minutes. The Hilliard version, however, clocks in at 70’55"
because overall Paul Hillier takes a more spacious view than does
Antony Pitts. I should stress right away that this doesn’t mean
that Hillier drags. Pitts’ interpretation is more urgent and in
some respects this is admirable. Perhaps there’s a price to be
paid, however. The words are much clearer in the Hilliard account,
I find. In part this is due to the slightly broader pacing. However,
the Hilliards are helped also by the recorded balance, which places
the singers closer to the microphone than is the case for Tonus
Pelegrinus. You sometimes have to listen very carefully indeed
to catch all the words in the Naxos version whereas on the ECM
disc every syllable is crystal clear.
my view the Hilliard version also enjoys a significant advantage
in one aspect of the composition of the quartet singing the words
of the evangelist. The quartet comprises soprano, alto, tenor
and bass. On ECM the alto is a male singer, David James, whereas
Tonus Pelegrinus have a female alto. For my money the cutting
edge that the male voice brings makes all the difference. Furthermore,
to my ears David James’ voice has an otherworldly quality to it
that a female alto just doesn’t have and that’s so suitable for
this music. I ought to say, however, that I can well imagine that
some listeners may feel that James is sometimes too prominent
in the balance, especially when he is duetting with soprano Lynn
Dawson. I should also say that the Tonus Pelegrinus quartet sing
very well and with just as much comprehension of and sympathy
for the style of Pärt’s music.
choral interjections are of crucial importance, just as in the
Bach Passions. It seems to me that The Western Wind Chamber Choir
who sing for Paul Hillier project a rather more positive presence
than do their rivals. This is partly because I suspect that Hillier
has a slightly larger choir at his disposal and partly because
they are somewhat more forwardly recorded than are Tonus Pelegrinus.
I’m not sure if the soloists join in the choral passages but I
think it might have been a good idea if Antony Pitts had had just
a few more singers in his choir on this occasion.
two male soloists are very good on both versions. Bass Robert
Macdonald has a larger voice than baritone Michael George (the
Christus on the ECM recording) but he handles his voice with discretion
and taste. The tenor, Mark Anderson, delivers the role of Pilate
in a somewhat more forward fashion than does John Potter on ECM.
If this is a deliberate device to emphasise Pilate’s separation
as a Roman and a Governor from the other characters in the drama,
who are both Jewish and governed, then I approve.
I’d say that on musical grounds the original recording wins on
points. However, the Naxos performance is a very good one also.
It is clear that Antony Pitts has immersed himself in the score
and in Pärt’s musical ethic and that he has conveyed very
effectively to his performers his vision of the piece. A crucial
difference between the two recordings is that the ECM CD is a
premium price product whereas the Naxos disc retails at super
budget price. When the ECM recording first appeared it was difficult
to imagine a rival version would come along, still less an excellent
one at a price which makes it so easy for collectors to investigate
this compelling piece. In the last analysis I think the ECM recording
is still the first choice but this fine newcomer runs it close
and as an introduction to the work (both in terms of price and
documentation) it wins hands down.
any collector wishing to investigate this extraordinary work this
Naxos CD is an obvious choice. However, once you’ve got to know
the piece as a result, if you find you respond positively to it
then I’d urge you to hear the ECM recording also.
see also review by Neil
Horner and Kevin