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Arvo PÄRT (b. 1935)
Triodion (1998) [13.36]
Tribute to Caesar (1997) [5.33]
Nunc Dimittis (2001) [6.16]
Ode VII (1994) [7.37] from Kanon Pokajanen
I Am the True Vine (1994) [6.50]
The Woman with the Alabaster Box (1997) [5.26]
Dopo la vittoria (1996/1998) [10.39]
Bogorodiste Djevo (1990) [1.28]
Elora Festival Singers/Noel Edison
rec. St. John Chrysostom Church, Newmarket, Ontario, Canada, 19–21 May 2006
NAXOS 8.570239 [57.26]

The Elora Festival Singers have already recorded Arvo Pärt’s Berliner Messe and his Magnificat for Naxos (see review). Now they have recorded a further disc, exploring Pärt’s unaccompanied choral music. In a way, this is an apt follow-up to the earlier one as it covers the choral music that Pärt wrote after the 1989 Magnificat up to his 2001 Nunc Dimittis. On this disc Pärt seems to be following a path in which his music develops an added richness. Though this is less of a strict development and more of a series of explorations, all the while Pärt sticks to his basic style; a style that ensures that every piece here is recognisable and moving.
The choir opens its recital with his 1998 Triodion, setting three odes from the Orthodox Prayer Book. The piece was commissioned by Lancing College to mark the 150th anniversary of the College’s founding; Benjamin Britten had written his cantata St. Nicholas for the College’s 100th anniversary. St. Nicholas is the College’s patron Saint and Pärt refers to him in the final ode.
Triodion has already appeared on disc at least twice before, in recordings by the choir of Lancing College and by Polyphony. Polyphony’s recording was highly commended in the Gramophone in 2003. But the Elora Festival Singers, a Canadian professional group, are well up to the challenge. Their tone is warm and flexible, disguising the difficulties of Pärt’s vocal writing and allowing the music to speak naturally. I found their performance of this piece profoundly affecting. You could imagine brighter, more hard-edged performances but the choir give this austere piece a feeling of humanity and warmth.
The other pieces have all appeared before in highly commended recordings. Besides Polyphony, Theatre of Voices and the Estonian Chamber choir have also made overlapping discs. This is no matter, as Pärt’s music is such that hearing different performances of the same work is illuminating. And, of course, the Naxos pricing means that we can experiment a little and duplicate without causing undue budgetary problems.
Tribute to Caesar is a similarly apposite setting of the verse from the Gospel of St. Mark. This was written to commission, as were most of the pieces on this disc. Tribute and The Woman with the Alabaster Box were both commissioned to mark the 350th anniversary of the diocese of Karlstad in Sweden. The Nunc Dimittis was a commission from St. Mary’s Cathedral in Edinburgh and I am the True Vine was written to commemorate the 900th anniversary of the founding of Norwich Cathedral. The commissioners of all these pieces must be more than content; they helped give us some of Pärt’s most sophisticated and affecting music. All of it is well performed by Noel Edison and his singers. Inevitably there are odd moments when you might think things could have been done a little differently, but all the pieces are performed to the same high standard.
The short Bogorodiste Djevo was written for the 1992 Service of Nine Lessons and Carols at Kings College, Cambridge. The CD booklet describes it as highly charged.  I am afraid that I found it less so in this performance.
Dopo la Vittoria sets an Italian text, translated from the Russian, and was commissioned to commemorate the 1600th anniversary of the death of St. Ambrose. Here I found the choir’s performance rather too cool in its perfection, I wanted more passion in the vocal lines. Somehow the performance fails to match the vibrancy of the Italian text and Pärt’s response to it.
The earliest piece is Ode VII from Kanon Pokajanen. The complete Kanon Pokajanen is one of Pärt’s longest works. Though it receives a loving performance here, I would have liked to hear more of the full work.
This is a finely crafted disc with some superb choral singing. Pärt’s music is never easy and often performance is made more difficult by the need for the finished result to sound natural and effortless. Here it does. The singing of the Elora Festival Singers is the art which conceals art.
When listening to complete recitals of Pärt’s choral music, I develop a number of unworthy thoughts; that all his music sounds the same and that he is attempting to set the text of the entire Bible and the Russian Orthodox Canon. Performances like this persuade me otherwise … just!
Inevitably everyone will have preferences and favourites and recitals by other groups might give Pärt’s music in a different sound-world which is more to your taste. But this disc makes it easy to explore Pärt’s unaccompanied vocal music at a very attractive price.

Robert Hugill

see also review by Glyn Pursglove (Bargain of the Month - November 2006) 


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