Arvo PäRT (b.1935) LAbb Agathon [14:26]
Camille SAINT-SANS (1835-1921) Oratorio de Nol Op. 12 [37:14]
Pärt: Anna Maria Chiuri (mezzo); Bologna Cello Project; Saint-Sans: Stefania Donzelli (soprano); Kamelia Kader (mezzo); Isabella Conti (alto); Patrizio Saudelli (tenor): Lucio Mauti (baritone); Mario Ciferri (organ)
Coro Colombati Citt di Pergola; Orchestra da Camera delle Marche/Roberto Molinelli
rec. 7 May 2010, Sala Respighi, Conservatorio G B Martini, Bologna (Pärt); November 2008, Duomo di Pergola (Saint-Sans)
texts included (and translation for the Pärt)
SHEVA SH036 [51:55]

It is easy to be misled by the vertical-shaped box for this disc into thinking it is a DVD. It is not, and I have no idea why this format was chosen, nor, more importantly, why these two works are linked here. Apart from their religious subject matter and having the same conductor they have little in common. No matter; both are very much worth hearing as performed here.

Perhaps the link is their unusual scoring. The Pärt, said to be a first recording, is for soprano and eight cellos. Although the cellists here are apparently all students at the Bologna Conservatory they play with real character and only occasional signs of strain. The work is apparently dedicated to Barbara Hendricks. Anna Maria Chiuri is very different singer - a dramatic mezzo-soprano with a voice probably well suited to such operatic roles as Dalila, Ortrud and Mistress Quickly, all of which are in her repertoire. Somewhat to my surprise she sounds splendid here, with a real feel for the narrative and forward motion of the piece and only some occasional strain in her higher register. The work is a telling in French of the story of Agathon, one of the desert fathers, and his encounter with a leper who turns out to be an angel, testing his practical faith. It is performed here in an unexpectedly full-blooded way, giving free rein to the drama. Whether this is what the composer expects I do not know, but I was gripped throughout.

The longer work on the disc is Saint-Sans Christmas Oratorio. This was written when the composer was only 23 for small forces consisting of five soloists, choir, strings, harp and organ. The ten movements are based on a variety of biblical texts. It has a wholly individual sound, especially as performed here on a particularly characterful organ, and great charm right from the Prelude, said to be in the style of Sebastian Bach but not really reminding this listener of him very much. Its mixture of rustic sounds and pastoral melodies is at times more reminiscent of Massenet, but it is wholly delightful, as is the rest of the work. The use of harp and organ together is especially characterful. This brief Oratorio has a sound-world all of its own, and it is this individuality which is well brought out. The occasionally somewhat home-made sounds of the soloists and organ in particular do not sound out of place here. All sing and play with real understanding and fervour, and give the very strong impression of a community act of piety rather than a glossy concert presentation. The text is given only in Latin but with the relevant Biblical sources.

With its unusual format, unlikely coupling and unfamiliar music and performers and relatively short playing time, Sheva have put unnecessary obstacles in place of the success of this disc. This is regrettable, as it very much deserves it; it is one of those very individual discs that sticks in the memory and demands immediate replay.

John Sheppard

One of those very individual discs that sticks in the memory and demands immediate replay.