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Of Innocence and Experience


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Arvo PÄRT (b. 1935)
Adam’s Lament (2009) [24:09]¹
Beatus Petronius (1990/2011) [5:16]¹
Salve Regina (2001/2011) [12:15]¹
Statuit ei Dominus (1990/2011) [4:57]¹
Alleluia-Tropus (2008/2010) [2:39]¹
L’Abbé Agathon (2004/2008) [14:04]²/³
Estonian Lullaby (2002/2006) [2:09]²
Christmas Lullaby (2002/2006) [2:27]²
Tui Hirv (soprano)¹; Rainer Vilo (baritone)³
Latvian Radio Choir¹, Vox Clamantis¹, Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir²
Sinfonietta Riga¹, Tallinn Chamber Orchestra²/Tõnu Kaluste rec. Niguliste Church, Tallinn: November 2011
and May 2007 (Estonian;Christmas Lullaby)
ECM NEW SERIES 2225 [67:58]

We’re all for declaring interests in reviews on MWI, and from the top I need to point out that my copy of Arvo Pärt’s Adam’s Lament was passed to me via conductor Tõnu Kaljuste rather than as part of the more usual big wobbly heap from chief Len, so you would hardly expect me to say bad things about it.
All of the pieces here are premiere recordings or first recordings of new versions reworked by the composer, so top value is ensured. One of the most stunning Arvo Pärt releases from ECM in recent years was In Principio (see review), which for me has been something of an inspiration. While not having as many moments of massive intensity and high drama, this more recent programme delivers everything one could wish for in an ECM production of this nature, with music of sublimely expressive spirituality and consummate standards of performance and recording, all set in the deeply atmospheric space of Niguliste Church, one of Tallinn’s many striking landmarks.
While I perceive the mood of In Principio as fairly dark, the general impression one gains from a first hearing of Adam’s Lament is, despite the title, one of luminosity and grim, hard-won hope. Rising harmonic features and transparent textures of pizzicato strings contrast and play against the dramatic intensity characterised by the opening bars. First inversion resolutions provide occasional moments of startling harmonic recognition, though always sprinkled with the distinctive and unmistakable Pärt magic dust. The work takes its text from the sainted monk Staretz Silouan (1866-1938), the words of whom are printed in the booklet, as are those all of the other pieces. These are only given in translation, so it’s not really possible to follow the text with the music which is a shame. Pärt’s music is remarkably descriptive however, and it’s not hard to imagine roughly where you are in the narrative as the work unfolds. With many moments of breathtaking beauty and the sensation of time slowing to glacial monumentality, this is a masterpiece which will haunt you and bring you back again and again.
Beatus Petronius was originally for double choruses and organs, and superficially has a similar starting point to Pärt’s Pari Intervallo. The music soon expands however, to my mind sharing one of David Sanson’s booklet quotes with the Salve Regina as a “slow and majestic procession”, a gently moving journey into transcendent infinity. The Salve Regina is a more substantial and extremely moving and beautiful work, the subtly introduced colours of a celesta mixing with the strings. At times this creates awe-inspiring heavenly textures, at other moments sailing close to but just managing to avoid the winds of Disney cheesiness.
Statuit ei Dominus is paired in Pärt’s words with the Beatus Petronius as “two sonic worlds, like the two sides of God.” Monastic priestly plainchant is set against one of the composer’s signature descending diminuendi, the choral intonations made stern and imposing through rolling timpani and deep pedal tones. This forms an extreme contrast with the almost ethereal translucency of the brief Alleluia-Tropus, medieval intervals creating a feeling of archaic timelessness against a repeating Alleluia refrain which teases with almost jazzy pizzicato strings. Temporal blurring is another feature of L’Abbé Agathon, whose string textures have an ecclesiastical non-vibrato Baroque texture, the voices tracing lines of plainsong simplicity. A further layer of expression is introduced by the finely wrought solo parts, the soprano floating above, the baritone a more earthy counterpart. The text concerns St. Agathon, whose association with lepers relates to the origins of the work. I’m not quite sure how Pärt does it, but his unique touch manages to bring out flavours of Fauré and Poulenc while preserving distinctively personal harmonic relationships and narrative style.
The final Two Lullabies are, in the words of the composer, “like little pieces of lost Paradise - a small consolation combined with the feeling of profundity and intimacy.” If you know the Estonian spirit and vocal tradition then the first Estonian Lullaby will instantly chime in recognition with that feeling of outward innocence and inner depth - and not without a healthy dose of good humour as well. This is music with a smile, the final ‘missing’ note perhaps an impish wink towards sophisticated wit and away from clodden lumpishness. The Christmas Lullaby takes the genre a little further, but has a similar gentle directness at its heart.
This is an Arvo Pärt release which has everything going for it: superb music superlatively performed and recorded in the atmosphere in which it was created. Spiritual experience is always a deeply personal business, and no-one can say what you will take from these pieces. It’s enough for me that the whole thing, and certain moments in particular, make me shed a tear of awe and respect - refreshed in the knowledge that we can still create generously wondrous things from mean-tempered scales.
Dominy Clements