PART: Berliner Messe / Magnificat / Summa (Elora Festival Orchestra/ Elora Festival Singers/ Jurgen Petrenko/ Noel Edison/ Norbert Kraft) (Naxos: 8.557299)
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Arvo Part (b. 1935)
Born in Paide, Estonia on 11th September 1935,Arvo Part studied in Tallinn with Harri Otsa andVeljo Tormis, then at the Tallinn Conservatoire withHeino Eller, graduating in 1963. While his earliestworks adopted an undemanding neo-classical style,his clandestine study of serial composition madeitself apparent in Nekrolog (1960), heralding aseries of scores, including Perpetuum Mobile andthe First 'Polyphonic' Symphony, which affordedPart notoriety amid the warily-conservativeestablishment of the period. A growing interest inthe music of Bach led Part to combine the famousB-A-C-H motif with often wildly extraneousmaterial, as in the cello concerto Pro et Contra andthe Second Symphony (both 1966). The climax ofthis period came with Credo (1968), in which Bachand Modernism openly conflict in a work whoseovert Christianity was considered a direct challengeto Soviet officialdom.
Rather than pursue this line of thinking, Partretreated into near silence. The Third Symphony of1971 [Naxos 8.554591] gave notice of an intenseinterest in early music, notably Gregorian Chant,but it was not until 1976 that he again began tocompose fluently, using a tonal technique he termedtintinnabuli, in which the bell-like resonance ofnotes in a triad underscores a melodic voice whichrevolves step-wise around a central pitch. A numberof works considered modern classics followed,notably Tabula Rasa [Naxos 8.554591], Fratres andCantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten [both onNaxos 8.553750], culminating in 1982 with Part'slargest work thus far, the St John Passion [Naxos8.555860]. This paved the way for a sequence ofmainly sacred choral works, consolidating Part'sreputation among the most significant composers atwork today. The present recording provides anoverview of his mature idiom, with works writteneither side of the Passion, and in which a gradualexpressive opening-out and harmonic enrichment ofPart's musical vocabulary can be detected.
Composed in 1977 and revised in 1996,Cantate Domino is a setting of Psalm XCV for fourpartchorus and organ. The simple, chant-likemelody is heard in a number of harmonizations andregistral combinations, with the sparing organ partadding a subtle degree of colour to the vocalwriting.
Commissioned for the Ninetieth DeutscheKatholikentag in Berlin, Part's Berliner Messe wascomposed during 1990-91 and revised six yearslater. Originally scored for four solo voices andorgan, it was subsequently arranged either for choirand organ or, as on the present recording, for choirand strings. After an elegiac Kyrie, in which stringsintertwine with the choir's supplications, the Gloriaeffects a more animated manner within the samerestricted tonal and harmonic compass. In the firstof two departures from the customary Mass liturgy,Part interpolates a First and Second Alleluia whichwarm the choral textures with their major-moderadiance. There follows an extensive setting of theVeni Sancte Spiritus, in which alternate responsesfrom the four vocal registers unfold over a staticpedal in lower strings, and with upper stringsarticulating the vocal harmony at key points. TheCredo is a direct rewrite of Summa (see below),here sounding a mood of easeful contentment. Notso the Sanctus, the inward, ruminative manner ofwhich is pursued to a more rarified degree in theAgnus Dei, which ends the work in a mood of calm,etiolated detachment.
A setting of Psalm CXXIX for male chorus,organ and ad libitum percussion complement, DeProfundis was sketched in 1977 but completed onlyin 1980, after Part's temporary move to Vienna, anddedicated to the Austrian composer Gottfried vonEinem. The effortful initial progress of tenors andbasses is touched off by a flickering organ ostinatoand punctuated by quiet bass drum strokes andchimes from a single tubular bell, rising in a gradualcrescendo then easing back to its initial dynamiclevel, before the almost peremptory conclusion.
Composed in 1977 for soprano, alto, tenor andbass soloists or choir, Summa was recast in 1990 asthe Credo in Part's Berliner Messe, at which time itwas also arranged for string quartet [Naxos8.553750]. Unlike the revision, the original versionproceeds unequivocally in the minor mode, anindication, perhaps, of the genesis of the piece at atime when public avowal of religious faith wasforbidden in Estonia.
Part's first work to a English text, TheBeatitudes, was written for the RIAS ChamberChoir in Berlin and completed in 1990 (withrevisions the following year). The consistency ofthis setting of St Matthew, ch.V, vv. 3-12, is evidentin the musical phrasing, which, in its combinationof short and long notes, emphasizes salient wordsin the text. Again, there is a gradual crescendo,culminating here in a fervent Amen and an intenseorgan postlude which fades out of earshot in theclosing bars.
Commissioned by Deutsche Musikrat, and firstgiven by the Staats- und Domchor of Berlin in1989, the Magnificat is perhaps Part's mostimmediately appealing choral work. The alternationof solo and tutti sections imparts a powerfulspiritual aura, and, as so often with this composer,there is no attempt to 'set' the text as in classicalcomposition over the preceding three or morecenturies.Richard Whitehouse