Petr Eben drew upon the Old Testament and sacred texts from early church fathers for his powerful sacred vocal works. Latin was his preferred language for these settings, and he favoured Gregorian chant which he used as inspiration for his weaving polyphonic lines, complex rhythms and irregular patterning. This body of work, written in the teeth of party opposition in Czechoslovakia – born a Jew, Eben became a practising Catholic – is one of the most important by a Czech composer in the twentieth-century.
His six-part motet Ubi caritas et amor
was written in 1964, one of the earliest in this recital of music, was composed in memory of Pope John XXIII. One finds that the initial archaisms move seamlessly into thicker and more complex textures, culminating in a series of joyful Amens.
The Marian hymn Salve Regina
dates from 1973 and takes a rather unusually joyful stance moving toward the emergence of the Gregorian chant - reversing his usual practice of introducing it at the start of his motets – toward the very end. Eben’s musico-pictorial vernacular setting of Cantico delle Creature
, the Canticle of the Sun, expresses its adulation in music of great rhythmic vivacity and liveliness. Verba sapientiae
was composed in 1991-92, thus post-Velvet Revolution, and is cast in three movements. The music’s direction is from despair to the hope of consolation. He employs a variety of effects – excellently realised through the pin-point articulation of the Sächsisches Vocal Ensemble – especially in the concluding movement where shouts, declamation and moments of ‘falling away’ in the vocal line gradually resolve themselves into more definable consolatory paragraphs. That said, the central panel of the triptych is the most consistently moving, touched by Elysian warmth after a moment of – for Eben, rare – recitation.
The four psalms that make up Psalmi peregrine
turned out to be Eben’s final choral cycle and they chart, compactly but movingly, a journey from doubt to joyful affirmation. Again there are subtle effects though nowhere as extrovert as in Verba sapientiae.
Elements of autobiography are present in Mundus in periculo
(1994-95), a powerful narrative that admits abrasion and bitterness but embraces conciliation: Eben had been imprisoned in Buchenwald as a young man. Rhythmus de gaudiis Paradisi
was a commissioned work, composed in 1995, and is blissfully vital and jubilant with crisp dotted rhythms and a sense of sure elation. It’s one of his most unfettered choral settings.
Splendidly interpreted and recorded, this disc will prove highly attractive to admirers of Eben’s vocal music.