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Arvo PÄRT (b. 1935)
Pilgrim's Song
Ein Wallfahrtslied (1984/2001) [10:02]
Magnificat (1990) [6:33]
Summa (1977) [4:36]
Nunc dimittis (2001) [7:33]
Te Deum (1884/9872) [29:50]
Chamber Choir Voces Musicales
Tallinn Sinfonietta/Risto Joost
rec. 2009, Tallinn, Estonia. Stereo. DDD
Texts and translations included
ESTONIAN RECORD PRODUCTIONS ERP2309 [59:11]

This disc was reviewed back in 2010 by Gavin Dixon, when it was issued in time to celebrate the 75th birthday of Arvo Pärt. Now, as the composer’s 80th birthday approaches in September I also have the chance to consider it.

The programme opens with the piece from which the album takes its title, Ein Wallfahrtslied (‘Pilgrim's Song’). This is a setting of Psalm 121 (‘I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills’). The original version, dating from 1984, was for tenor and baritone soloists and string quartet. Here it’s given in the revision for male chorus and string orchestra. It begins with an extended dark and probing passage for strings. Not until 2:39 do the voices enter and then it’s the basses we hear, intoning lines to a monotone while the strings play spare, nervous material underneath the voices. Eventually the tenors take over, at a different pitch. The vocal writing throughout is monotonous – in the true, non-pejorative sense of the word – and all the interest lies in the material for the strings. It’s the instruments that close the work with a lengthy and rather bleak postlude. The words Pärt has set here are, surely, encouraging and positive in tone, enjoining trust in God, but I hear none of that in his musical response. Frankly, I didn’t find this piece remotely compelling.

The Te Deum is quite a different matter. The piece is scored from three choirs, strings, prepared piano and phonogram (wind harp). The opening is arresting. Here the music is very subdued - almost awe-struck - and mysterious. Pärt seems to reach back in time across the ages. Eventually, immediately before ‘Tibi Cherubim et Seraphim’ the music acquires a more urgent pace and tone. Thereafter there are a number of loud outbursts – such as the radiant proclamation, ‘Pleni sunt caeli et terrae’ – but many more sections where the dynamics are greatly reduced. What makes the setting so effective is that virtually every line of text is sung by a different group of voices – and on several occasions one group will repeat the words that another has just sung but in doing so will not use the same musical material. These constant changes of vocal timbre are perceptively made and constantly beguile and stimulate the listener’s ear. The instrumental parts are frequently spare in texture but though Pärt has deliberately restricted the palette of instrumental colours at his disposal the writing for the instruments is always effective and interesting. The work, which eventually fades away into nothing, demands great concentration both by the performers and by listeners. At nearly 30 minutes in duration it’s quite a long piece but I found it engrossing and the present performance is refined and committed. The engineers differentiate nicely between the various groups of singers.

Three a cappella works form the centrepiece of the programme. As you might suspect from the dates of composition the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis do not form a pair of linked canticles. The Magnificat is full of beautiful if spare writing for voices. The singers are very exposed and need to sing with great control and sensitivity – which the voices of Voces Musicales certainly achieve. Quite frequently one finds that a setting of the Nunc dimittis is shorter - often much shorter – than the Magnificat, if only because there’s far less text to set. That’s not the case here, however, and the reason is that Pärt’s setting is very slow-moving. Until near the end the music is generally quiet and the impression is one of rapt devotion. This is very concentrated, exposed music which has a mysterious, timeless feel to it. It’s another keen test for the choir and the test is passed with flying colours here. Summa is perhaps best known in the 1991 version for string orchestra but here it’s given in the 1977 version, which is a setting of the Creed for unaccompanied voices. In the notes we are told that this work “forms the core and essence of the program on this CD.” I infer, therefore, that it means a lot to this choir and their conductor. Unfortunately I find that this up-and-down intervallic setting is by no means the most interesting or expressive music on the disc.

These are expert performances which serve Arvo Pärt’s music extremely well. Though the playing time may be somewhat ungenerous this is still a disc that I’d encourage all devotees of the eminent Estonian composer to hear. The performances have been very well recorded; the sound is clear and clean with just the right amount of ambience; the venue is not stated but from the photographs in the booklet it’s clear that a church was used. The booklet is nicely produced. However, the balance of the notes is skewed: there’s an awful lot about Risto Joost and Voces Musicales but the notes about the music itself are far too brief, which is far from helpful.

John Quinn

Previous review: Gavin Dixon