PART: Music for Unaccompanied Choir (Elora Festival Singers/ Noel Edison/ Norbert Kraft & Bonnie Silver) (Naxos: 8.570239)
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Arvo Pärt (b. 1935)
Triodion • Tribute to Caesar • Nunc dimittis • Ode VII from Kanon Pokajanen
I Am the True Vine • The Woman With the Alabaster Box • Dopo la vittoria
Arvo Pärt was born at Paide in Estonia on 11 September 1935. He studied with Harri Otsa and Veijo Tormis, then at the Tallinn Conservatory with Heino Eller, graduating in 1963. His first works adopt an undemanding neo-classical style, but a clandestine study of serial technique became apparent in Nekrolog (1960), heralding a series of scores, such as Perpetuum Mobile and the First 'Polyphonic' Symphony, which afforded Pärt notoriety amid the warily-conservative establishment of the period. A growing interest in the music of Bach led Pärt to combine the famous B-A-C-H motif with often wildly extraneous material, as in the cello concerto Pro et Contra and the Second Symphony (both 1966). The climax of this period came with Credo (1968), in which Bach and Modernism openly conflict in a work whose unabashed Christianity was considered a direct provocation to Soviet officialdom.
Rather than pursue this line of thinking, Pärt retreated into virtual silence. The Third Symphony of 1971 [Naxos 8.554591] gave notice of an intense interest in early music, notably Gregorian chant, but not until 1976 did he begin to compose fluently, now using a tonal technique he termed 'tintinnabuli', in which the bell-like resonance of notes in a triad underscores a melodic voice which revolves step-wise around a central pitch. Several works now considered classics followed, Tabula Rasa [Naxos 8.554591], Fratres and Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten [Naxos 8.553750], culminating in 1982 with the St John Passion [Naxos 8.555860]. This paved the way for a sequence of mainly sacred choral works, consolidating Pärt's reputation among the most significant composers at work today. The present disc provides a view of his music over a decade: one in which the focussing on harmonic and rhythmic, thus expressive essentials is always apparent.
Written for a commission to mark the 350th anniversary of the Karlstad Diocese in Sweden, Tribute to Caesar (1997) sets verse from the Gospel of St Matthew, where Jesus confronts the Pharisees with their hypocrisy. Within its modest dimensions, the piece contrasts overtly chordal passages with those in which a melodic declamation predominates, the two being integrated with the unassuming skill that is a hallmark of Pärt's most recent music for unaccompanied choir.
Although the coupling of Magnificat and Nunc dimittis is a procedural 'given' in the Evening Service of the Anglican tradition, Pärt's setting of the former text was only joined by the latter after twelve years, his Nunc dimittis being written to a commission from St Mary's Episcopal Church in Edinburgh and first heard at the Edinburgh Festival in August 2001. The words taken from the Gospel of St Luke are set with an emphasis on the gentle radiance that they so directly evoke: the part-writing shifts between degrees of dissonance with a sense of growing intensity, and reaches its brief but fervent climax at the words 'lumen ad revelationem', with a simple but powerful shift to the major.
The setting of Bogoróditse Djévo was written for the annual Service of Nine Lessons and Carols at King's College, Cambridge, in 1992. As befits this most emotionally-charged of hymns, Pärt imbues his tribute to the Virgin Mary with direct expressive vibrancy.
Triodion (1998) was a commission from Lancing College, Sussex, to mark the 150th anniversary of its founding. Fifty years before, Benjamin Britten, a composer much admired by Pärt, had composed his cantata St Nicolas for the centenary of the school, a connection Pärt underlined by commemorating the saint, who is also the patron saint of Lancing, in the last of three Odes drawn from the Orthodox Prayer Book. The work itself begins with an Introduction, offering praise to the Holy Trinity, then proceeds with Odes directed to Jesus the Son of God, the Most Holy Birthgiver of God and to the Holy Saint Nicholas respectively, before a brief dedicatory Coda (marked ad libitum, as is the Introduction). Each of the Odes is rhythmically static, while harmonic movement similarly ceases in each of the final supplications, where Pärt's music can be heard at its starkest and most unadorned.
A further commission from Karlstad to mark its 350th anniversary, The Woman with the Alabaster Box (1997), again sets verse from the Gospel of St Matthew, where Jesus reproaches his disciples for highhandedness shown to a woman who pours fine ointment over his head in tribute. Pärt is characteristically noninterventionist in his treatment of the conflicting points of view, the simple homophonic and stepwise melodic writing creating music of euphonious melancholy.
Composed to commemorate the 900th anniversary of the founding of Norwich Cathedral in 1996, I Am the True Vine sets verse from the Gospel of St John. Each stanza deals, to a greater or lesser degree, with the image of a branch in the process of growth that brings with it fruitfulness and hence fulfillment: hence the systematic repetition of notes, the entry of voices and the interplay of registers, to evoke the vine metaphor as one of change within continuity.
Completed in 1997, and first heard at Cologne Cathedral the following year, Kanon Pokajanen is Pärt's largest work after the St John Passion, its succession of odes emerging from the start of the 1990s. As with its companions in the cycle, Ode VII, which takes its text from the liturgical morning canon of repentance, is permeated by Russian Orthodox idioms, whether in its sonorous, triadic harmonies or in the recourse to parallel motion, to create music of a dark-hued and also intensely felt contemplation.
Commissioned by the Cultural Department of Milan to commemorate the 1600th anniversary of the death of St Ambrose, often credited with the authorship of the Te Deum, Dopo la vittoria had its première at the city's San Simpliciano Basilica in December 1997. Unusually for Pärt, this description, translated into Italian from an original Russian source, of the baptism of St Augustine by St Ambrose, is set with keen responsiveness to its narrative qualities. At three points, words from the latter's famous text are given an especial emphasis, as if to confirm that this is a present-day 'sacred cantata' with direct textual and musical links to those from the past.