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Arvo PÄRT (b. 1935)
Peace upon you, Jerusalem (2002) [4:50]
L’abbé Agathon (2004-08) [14:34]
Salve Regina (2002) [11:35]
Magnificat (1989) [6:28]
Nunc dimittis (2001) [8:22]
Stabat Mater (1985/2008) [25:09]
Gloriæ Dei Cantores/Richard K Pugsley
rec. 2018/19, Church of the Transfiguration, Orleans, USA. DSD
Texts & translations included

I may be wrong, but I don’t believe that the American choir, Gloriæ Dei Cantores has previously recorded any music by Arvo Pärt. They now fill that gap in their discography with an album devoted entirely to his works.

To the best of my recollection, I don’t believe I’ve previously heard either of the first two pieces on the programme. Peace upon you, Jerusalem sets words from Psalm 122 for female voices. The short setting takes its cue predominantly from the Psalmist’s expression of joy at the prospect of going to Jerusalem. That, however, does not preclude some more pensive passages, including the very end of the piece. It’s an attractive composition and it’s eagerly performed here. My only reservation is that the sound of the women’s voices sounds just a little mature; I sense they were using a bit too much vibrato.

L’abbé Agathon is an interesting piece. It tells a story concerning Father Agathon, one of the early Christian ‘Desert Fathers’. Agathon is on his way to town to sell a few modest wares when he encounters a leper on the road. The leper asks for his help and Agathon carries him to the town. Once there, as Agathon sells his merchandise, the leper seeks further acts of kindness from him, culminating in a request to be taken back to their first meeting place. Agathon complies with all these requests and when he finally sets the leper back down in the road outside town the leper is revealed as an Angel. The work is scored for soprano solo (the leper), baritone solo (Agathon) female chorus (the narrators) and a small ensemble of strings (here 3/3/4/3/2). The piece is sung in French and I think that the sound made by the ladies of Gloriæ Dei Cantores is much better suited to that language. The music is very well fitted to the story it relates and the piece is appealing. It’s also very sincere in the way the rather touching story is told. The performance is a good one, although I wasn’t always convinced by the French pronunciation of the soprano soloist, Rachel McKendree, a member of the choir.

The Salve Regina is scored for mixed chorus and organ. It’s a piece with which I’m familiar through the 2003 recording – the work’s first, and made in the composer’s presence – by Stephen Layton and Polyphony (Hyperion CDA67675). It was interesting to compare and contrast the two performances. On the Hyperion, the organ, played by Christopher Bowers-Broadbent, is rather more prominently balanced than is the case on this new version where James E. Jordan’s contribution is heard, as it were, behind the choir. The Hyperion engineers place the singers rather more distantly from the listener as compared with the positioning of Gloriæ Dei Cantores. I think there are arguments to commend each approach. The choral writing is fairly simple and prayer-like. Much of it is subdued, though the music becomes briefly louder and more obviously fervent on a couple of occasions. I appreciated the sincerity of the present performance.

Some twelve years separates the composition of the Magnificat and the Nunc dimittis, both of which are for a cappella choir. I don’t know if Pärt intended the latter piece as a companion for the Magnificat. The Magnificat is largely subdued and humble in nature, the writing quite sparse. I have a 1996 recording of this piece by Paul Hillier and Theatre of Voices, which was later reissued as part of a three-disc set. Reviewing that compilation, Dominy Clements specifically commented on the “pearlescent trebles and expressive shaping” that he heard in the performance of the Magnificat. On this present disc, Richard K Pugsley also shapes the music expressively. What interests me, though, is that in the Hillier recording, again made in the presence of the composer, the engineers went for a more distant balance in a recording of Pärt’s music whereas the Gloriæ Dei Cantores singers are closer to the listener. I like the magical aura that a more distanced recording brings in this music but, on the other hand, it’s valuable to hear the vocal lines and the austere harmonies with the clarity that’s in evidence on this new recording. In his notes, James E. Jordan makes an interesting point about the Nunc dimittis, suggesting that Pärt conveyed in his music a sense of the architecture of the temple in which Simeon performed his priestly duties. The setting shares with the Magnificat a predominantly subdued and devotional ambience but in the Nunc dimittis the harmonic language is noticeably richer. As with many settings of this canticle, the music becomes louder and warmer at ‘Lumen ad revelationem gentium’ before subsiding again. Unlike the Magnificat, this canticle setting includes a ‘Gloria’ which, rather unusually, is very gentle. The members of Gloriæ Dei Cantores do these canticles very well.

The main item on the programme is the Stabat Mater. This was originally written, in 1985, for just three voices (SAT) and three string instruments (violin, viola and cello). Unfortunately, James E Jordan fails to mention in his notes that what is presented here is a version of the score for three-part choir (SAT) and string ensemble that was first performed in 2008. I know the work through the 1987 recording by the Hilliard Ensemble, which I suspect was the work’s first recording (ECM 1325 831 959-2). Comparisons aren’t appropriate since the forces used are so different. However, it is relevant to say that the original version for just six performers is, inevitably, more intimate than the version for larger forces. The performance by the Hillard Ensemble emphasises the bare, uncompromising nature of the music. It must be said, though, that this larger scale performance shows the piece in a different light. As performed here, the music has no lack of delicacy where appropriate but the more dramatic moments emerge with greater force.

It’s an astonishing, indeed daring, piece. The musical style is sparse and the piece is constructed round fairly limited thematic and harmonic material. Furthermore, the tempo is slow for much of the time. It’s therefore a considerable achievement by Arvo Pärt that he compels the listener’s attention throughout, notwithstanding his economy of means. Here, the work is performed by a choir of 23 singers (8/8/7) and 8 players (3/3/2). The performance is very convincing, right from the very sorrowful opening. As I indicated earlier, the dramatic passages, such as ‘juxta crucem lacrymosa’ and ‘Fac ut portem’, are given with the force they need. Elsewhere, the singers deliver their exposed lines with admirable control – I noted as an example the sopranos’ excellent negotiation of the stratospheric line at ‘Fac me plagis vulnerari’. The end is masterly, not least for its extreme simplicity. In simple octaves, and unaccompanied, the choir sings ‘Quando corpus morietur’ before the strings join the singers, revisiting the material with which they launched the work. The ‘Amen’ then consists of an extended, descending line which starts in the soprano part and eventually finds its way, via the alto line, to the tenors, bringing the Stabat Mater to a profound and movingly simple end. This performance by Gloriæ Dei Cantores is very successful and if you already have a recording of the original version of the score then this fuller version is well worth your attention also for the different light it shines on this moving score.

This is an admirable set of performances of choral music by Arvo Pärt. The singing by Gloriæ Dei Cantores is both accomplished and committed. Though I voiced a mild reservation about the sound of the sopranos in some of this music I stress that this is a matter of subjective taste and may well be occasioned by the type of performances I’ve heard of Pärt’s music in the past. The recorded sound on this hybrid SACD is very good.

John Quinn


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