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Arvo PÄRT (b. 1935)
Kanon Pokajanen (1997)
Capella Amsterdam/Daniel Reuss
rec. Vaalse Kerk, Amsterdam, 22-25 September 2015
HARMONIA MUNDI HMC905274 [59:45]

Arvo Pärt’s Kanon Pokajanen or Canon of Repentance is a vast exploration of Orthodox liturgy, the complete and substantial text of which is printed in the booklet, for this release translated into French, English and German. The ‘Kanon’ in this case is not a musical technique we all know from ‘Row, row, row your boat’, but is a genre of long-form hymn text dating from the Byzantine era.

Pärt took two years to compose Kanon Pokajanen and the work has a very special meaning to him. His music for these texts revolves around relatively few ideas, his statement on the work being that he “wanted the word to be able to find its own sound, to draw its own melodic line.” In this way there is a closer alliance with Gregorian chant than with the historical complexities of Western harmony or polyphony. In this way, Kanon Pokajanen demands a different kind of listening than to a choral work by Bach, Haydn or Brahms. This is devotional music; an almost timeless spiritual experience, in which you become immersed, and in which expectations of tension and release, contrasts of solo and chorus, emotive drama and reflection all have to be set aside.

Previously reviewed by Simon Thompson, this recording by Capella Amsterdam has been acclaimed widely, and rightly so. The singing is impeccably tuned, richly sonorous in texture but also unaffected, the choral homogeny perfectly balanced. In fact there is pretty much only one big beast that stands in its way as a market leader, and that is a recording on the ECM label with this work’s dedicatees the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir conducted by Tõnu Kaljuste that has been around for some time now. An extract of this can be found on ECM’s Musica Selecta collection (review), which is a good all-round way to find out more about Pärt’s music. The Capella Amsterdam recording is atmospheric enough but, recorded in the vast acoustic of Tallinn’s Niguliste Church, the Estonian recording goes several steps further in this regard. A bigger acoustic allows for a more expansive sonic canvas, and this is one reason the ECM recording is divided over two CDs, which has to be counted as a disadvantage. That said, if you are used to this earlier version the Amsterdam Capella will seem relatively compact by comparison, gaining in clarity and certainly very beautiful, but carrying more forward momentum and lyrical flow than the remarkable world that emerges from your speakers from Tallinn in the late 1990s.

Which you prefer will be a matter of taste, but is also most likely to be a side-effect of the first recording you become involved with. Each is marvellous on its own terms, and if you discover the Harmonia Mundi CD first, the ECM one is on first impression likely to sound slow and turgid by comparison. My experience was the other way around, but having adjusted my inner clock I find myself very much drawn to the Capella Amsterdam recording. If you need convincing, have a listen to the incredible effect of Ikos on track 6 from beginning to end – it’s under three minutes – and check on your molecules once at the start, and again when it’s over. I am indeed very happy to have both recordings on which to draw, depending on how deeply I want to repent on any given day.

Dominy Clements

Previous review: Simon Thompson



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