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Arvo PÄRT (b. 1935)
Passio Domini Nostri Jesu Christi secundum Joannem (1982)
Jesus: Robert Macdonald (bass)
Pilate: Mark Anderson (tenor)
Tonus Pelegrinus directed by Antony Pitts
Recorded in the Abbey Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, Dorchester-on-Thames, United Kingdom, 15-18 May and 28 June 2001
NAXOS 8.555860 [61í50"]

Arvo Pärtís 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."

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 Bachís 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 Pärtís piece is truly a case of multum in parvo.

This 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.

The 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, thatís 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 doesnít 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 on points.

However, in musical terms the balance rather tips back in favour of the Hilliard Ensemble in several respects. Thereís 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 70í55" because overall Paul Hillier takes a more spacious view than does Antony Pitts. I should stress right away that this doesnít mean that Hillier drags. Pittsí interpretation is more urgent and in some respects this is admirable. Perhaps thereís 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.

In 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 Jamesí voice has an otherworldly quality to it that a female alto just doesnít have and thatís 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 Pärtís music.

The 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. Iím 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.

The 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 Pilateís separation as a Roman and a Governor from the other characters in the drama, who are both Jewish and governed, then I approve.

So Iíd 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 Pärtís 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.

For any collector wishing to investigate this extraordinary work this Naxos CD is an obvious choice. However, once youíve got to know the piece as a result, if you find you respond positively to it then Iíd urge you to hear the ECM recording also.

John Quinn

see also review by Neil Horner and Kevin Sutton



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