Posts Tagged ‘Arvo Part’

Arvo Pärt on music and life

June 29, 2017

In the reading about Arvo Pärt that I have done over the years, the most memorable and insightful bits are almost invariably those spoken or written by Pärt himself. I was very pleased, therefore, to find video of a short address which he gave, in English, when he received an honorary doctorate from St Vladimir’s Seminary in 2014. It does not disappoint.

 

Favourites in 2016: Classical music

December 29, 2016

If 2016’s harvest of good pop music was slim pickings, my year in classical music has yielded a bumper crop. Over the past two months or so I’ve been slowly sifting my favourites, and I’ve arrived at a list of 10 discs that I’d like to praise today.

This year I’ve decided to discuss them more or less in chronological order, so we’ll begin with medieval music and move forward. Not all of these are 2016 records, but most are of fairly recent vintage. I’ve chosen one of them as my “record of the year”, and another as a runner-up, but you’ll have to read through to find out which is which. Where possible I’ve added a link to a video or excerpt from the disc, and in some cases I’ve also added links to more detailed reviews by real music critics, like so: [Review].

***

psallentes

St Hildegard: Ursula11
Psallentes
(Le Bricoleur, 2011)
55m

I’d like to begin with a collection of music by St Hildegard of Bingen. Ursula11 is the InternetAge title of the disc, a reference to the legend of St Ursula and her 11000 companions martyred by marauding Huns. St Hildegard composed an office to celebrate the feast of these martyrs. This music has been recorded before, notably by the medieval music matriarchs Anonymous 4, but that disc has always struck me as one of their least successful, and I find this performance, by the women of Psallentes, far preferable. They sing a capella, but they’ve done some interesting things with Hildegard’s monophonic compositions, for instance by layering the ecstatic flight of Hildegard’s vocal lines over more conventional recitation tones, or even by singing Hildegard’s music in canon. They have an exceptionally clear sound, light and flexible, and they keep the music, which can sometimes become lugubrious in the wrong hands, moving along at a brisk andante. The result is lovely on all counts. The one drawback, with respect to Anonymous 4’s approach, is that the earlier disc embedded Hildegard’s music within the context of sung offices (Vigil, Lauds, Vespers), whereas Psallentes simply groups the pieces by liturgical function (antiphons, then responsories, then a sequence and a hymn). It doesn’t make as much sense, but it nonetheless sounds great.

Here is a fragment of O rubor sanguinis, with a rather nice video to accompany it:

**

Johannes Ciconia worked in Italy, mostly in Rome and Padua, around the turn of the fifteenth century, and died in 1412. His music is a rather eclectic blend of genres and styles — sacred and secular, with French and Italian influences — and it can be seen today as a kind of summing up of late medieval composition, with isorhythms, canons, hockets, poly-texting, and a variety of other delightful techniques popping up.

Johannes Ciconia: Complete Works La Morra, Diabolus in Musica (Ricercar, 2010) 2h31m

Ciconia: Complete Works
La Morra, Diabolus in Musica
(Ricercar, 2010)
2h31m

This two-disc set includes all of Ciconia’s surviving works. The first disc consists of his secular music, and is performed by La Morra; the second is reserved for his sacred music, and is performed by (ironically) Diabolus in Musica. These are both ace ensembles, among the best in the world in this complex medieval repertoire, and it almost goes without saying that they sound terrific. There’s a suppleness and grace to the performances that comes from long familiarity. Both ensembles experiment with adding instruments to the mix — instruments are not notated on surviving manuscripts, but there’s evidence that they were used in an improvisational manner. The secular music is treated with lutes, vieles, and early keyboard instruments; the sacred music is filled out by sackbuts and a cheerfully plangent chamber organ. No full Mass setting survives — through-composed Mass settings were still a relatively new idea at the time — but we do have a number of different settings of the Gloria and Credo preserved here, and they sound wonderful.

Perhaps surprisingly, this set is actually the second of Ciconia’s complete works! The previous one, by the Huelgas Ensemble (made in the early 1980s), is presently unavailable. Bits and pieces of his music have been recorded by a few dozen ensembles, and all of his motets have been sung by Mala Punica (and everything that Mala Punica touches turns to gold; that’s a great record). I thoroughly enjoyed this set, which earns that coveted trifecta: interesting music, superb performances, great sound.

Here Diabolus in Musica performs Gloria Spiritus Et Alme:

**

An intriguing development in the world of early music this year was the launch of ORA, a British ensemble consisting of a select set of eminent early music choristers. They have commissioned an extensive set of new compositions from contemporary composers, each of which is to relate in some way to a renaissance masterpiece. This is a splendid idea that comes close to fulfilling a fantasy of mine (which is that I might somehow be magically endowed with compositional talent, which talent I would apply in just this way). Apparently they plan to issue ten recordings over the next five years pairing these originals with their modern “reflections”, and 2016 saw the release of the first two.

Upheld by Stillness ORA (Harmonia Mundi, 2016) 1h18m

Upheld by Stillness
ORA
(Harmonia Mundi, 2016)
1h18m

Volume 1 is entitled Upheld by Stillness and circles, broadly speaking, around the music of William Byrd. We get his setting of Psalm 137, Quomodo cantabimus? alongside the samely-psalmed motet by Philippe de Monte that inspired it (Super flumina Babylonis), and we hear his masterful Ave verum corpus, but the centerpiece is the Mass for Five Voices. The disc is then filled out with six new compositions: Roxanna Panufnik contributes a Kyrie after Byrd, Roderick Williams (the baritone) writes Ave Verum Corpus Reimagined, an extended meditation, with elaboration, on Byrd’s original, and Charlotte Bray gives us a marvellous Agnus Dei. Each of these hews fairly closely to Byrd’s model, both in text and texture, but the others on the disc are more loosely affiliated. Alexander d’Etrange’s Show Me, Dear Christe, for instance, combines parts of the Credo with excerpts from Byrd’s will and Donne’s poem. As one would expect, the quality of these modern “reflections” varies, and some of them I don’t much care for, but it’s still an excellent initiative, especially when the singing is this accomplished and the sound this pristine. [Review] [Review]

Alas! The second volume in the series, entitled Refuge from the Flames, fails in my mind to live up to the promise of the first. Subtitled “Miserere and the Savonarola Legacy”, it explores music inspired by or somehow related to the Florentine preacher, and is centered on William Byrd’s Infelix ego, which sets a text written by Savonarola on the eve of his execution. Also included are some Italian secular songs, a few short motets, and two large-scale versions of the Miserere, one the famous setting by Allegri (although in an edited version that hasn’t been recorded before) and the other by James MacMillan. The second (and only other) modern piece on this disc is another setting of Infelix ego (after Byrd), this time by the talented young Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds. So the music is great; it’s the singing that disappointed me. Technically it is above reproach, but there’s something missing. It sounds beautiful, yes, but somehow inert. I really wanted to like it. Alas!

Here is a promotional video for the choir:

**

Scattered Ashes Magnificat (Linn, 2016) 1h24m

Scattered Ashes
Magnificat
(Linn, 2016)
1h24m

But if we were a little disappointed by that particular foray into the Miserere and the Savonarola legacy, comfort is at hand in the form of Scattered Ashes: Josquin’s Miserere and the Savonarola Legacy, a curiously similarly conceived record from Philip Cave and Magnificat. Actually, despite the near identical titles the music is mostly different. Magnificat build their program around the expansive (17 min) setting of the Miserere by Josquin Desprez, which is given a dazzling performance, and fill it out with a variety of other 16th-century masterpieces, including another Miserere from Jean Lheretier and two settings of Tristitia obsedit me by Le Jeune and Clemens non Papa (the same two as on ORA’s record). The Savonaralan aspect of the program enters in two settings of the eve-of-execution testament Infelix Ego by Byrd and Lassus. The program is filled out with pieces by Palestrina and Gombert.

I’ve praised Magnificat before for the superb quality of their singing, and I’m happy to do so again: they have a tremendously rich sound, especially in the lower voices, which give them a wonderfully dark sonority, like aural velvet, smooth and luxurious. The soaring soprano lines pierce through this texture like shafts of white light. It’s gorgeous, and they sing with an intensity that was missing from ORA. [Review]

Here the choir sings Gombert’s In te Domine speravi:

**

Jones: Missa spes nostra Blue Heron (Blue Heron, 2015) 1h5m

Jones: Missa spes nostra
Blue Heron
(Blue Heron, 2015)
1h5m

The American ensemble Blue Heron has been engaged in a long-term project to perform music from the Peterhouse Partbooks, a set of manuscripts copied c.1540 that preserve a number of works of pre-Reformation English polyphony that were otherwise destroyed by reformers. The manuscripts have been damaged and, in some cases, lost, so these performances are supported by a behind-the-scenes scholarly effort (by Nick Sandon) to reconstruct missing parts. The disc I’m discussing here is the fourth in a projected set of five.

The centerpiece is a Mass by Robert Jones, Missa spes nostra, here given its world-premiere recording, and what a premiere! It’s a large-scale work, the four polyphonic sections of the Mass Ordinary being each about 10 minutes in duration. (English composers of this period generally did not set the Kyrie polyphonically, and Blue Heron sing an aptly chosen Sarum plainchant one.) The Mass is book-ended in front by Ludford’s Ave cujus conceptio, another rarity that, to my knowledge, has been recorded only once before, and in back by an ambitious (18 min) Stabat mater by Robert Hunt, a work that survives only in the Peterhouse manuscripts and, again, has not been recorded before. So a big part of the draw here is the repertoire, which is “new” and, what will not surprise you if you’ve any familiarity with pre-Henrician English polyphony, breathtakingly beautiful, with long, lyrical melodic lines, soaring upper voices, and judicious control of texture to provide structure to these expansively conceived compositions. It’s therefore a nice bonus to find that the performances are as good as they are. The choir, of about a dozen voices, is a good size for these pieces. The sound is not big (and some considerable part of the music is scored for fewer than four parts), but it is precise and clean. I love this music.

Here the ensemble sings the Credo from Robert Jones’ Missa spes nostra:

**

Let’s move on now to baroque music.

Bach: French Suites Murray Perahia (DG, 2016) 1h31m

Bach: French Suites
Murray Perahia
(DG, 2016)
1h31m

If you want to put me in a good mood, use the words “Bach”, “Murray”, and “Perahia” in the same sentence. Twenty years ago, when I was taking my first tentative steps into the world of classical music, among the first recordings I bought were Perahia’s then-new English Suites. They delighted and dazzled me then, as they delight and dazzle me now, and those records have an enduring special place in my heart. A few years afterward he made a recording of the Goldberg Variations, which to this day is my favourite of that great work.

This year he gave us the French Suites. I’ve had a somewhat difficult relationship with these pieces; of all Bach’s keyboard works, they are probably my least favourite. I’m not sure why this is so. (It’s not because they are particularly “French”, because they’re not.) I find they don’t sing the way Bach’s music usually does, and the counterpoint often feels angular to me, as if it can’t quite generate momentum. I don’t know. I’ve never warmed to them.

Well, I’m here to report that when Murray Perahia plays them they sound pretty wonderful. I’d like very much to put into words just what it is about his playing that can transmute (comparative) lead into gold, but I don’t know that I can. There are a hundred pianists who can play this music to the highest standards of technical perfection, and Perahia is one of them, but, to my ears, few who can infuse the music with that indefinable, elusive quality that makes it sing.

This is my runner-up for favourite record of the year. [Review]

Here is a video of Perahia playing the Courante from French Suite No.5:

**

Bach: Motets St Jacobs Kammarkor, REbaroque Gary Graden (Proprius, 2015) 1h18m

Bach: Motets
St Jacobs Kammarkör, REbaroque
Gary Graden
(Proprius, 2015)
1h18m

When people think of Bach’s choral music, they tend to think of the Passion settings and the cantatas, but his motets are great, life-giving music. The technical challenges they pose are formidable, requiring a choir that is quick on its feet, well-balanced, and capable of delivering long, laughing melismas without ceasing to sound joyful. They have been recorded many times, and I have a dozen or so performances in my collection, but this year I was impressed by this disc from St Jacobs Kammarkör, a Swedish choir I’d never heard of before (but which is evidently very accomplished), with orchestral support from REbaroque. Too often Bach’s motets can sound wooly, with too much vibrato obscuring the rapid-fire counterpoint, or ragged in tone, but not here: the performance are tight, confident, and effervescent. There were one of two moments I noticed where a high staccato note had an element of squeak in it, rather than being nicely rounded, but these were rare, and overall the impression left by St Jacobs Kammarkör is one of happy excellence. The instruments add a welcome bit of colour without obscuring the choral textures. The recorded sound is clear, with little resonance but still nice space around the sound.

**

Beethoven: Symphonies 5 & 7 Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra Manfred Honeck (Reference, 2015) 1h11m

Beethoven: Symphonies 5 & 7
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra
Manfred Honeck
(Reference, 2015)
1h11m

There are so many recordings of these symphonies that it seems folly to keep making them. This might seem especially true of the present disc, which goes toe-to-toe with Carlos Kleiber’s famous 1975 record, which has long been regarded not just as a reference recording for these two symphonies, but as one of the greatest orchestral recordings ever made. But every so often the habit of revisiting these warhorses of the repertoire turns up just the right combination of musical instincts and recorded sound, and this disc from Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra is one such case. The music sounds just as it should, but more so: the pacing is excellent, the playing is tight and expressive, and the sound is big and punchy. Even the final pages of No.5, which can sound laboriously comical in the wrong hands as the cadence resists resolution again and again, come across with tremendous crackle and excitement. I’m not going to claim that it unseats Kleiber, because it doesn’t, but it is an extremely good recording of these great pieces, well worth seeking out.

Here is a brief promotional video for the record, with excerpts:

**

schubert-winterreise-vickers-cover

Schubert: Winterreise
Jon Vickers, Geoffrey Parsons
(EMI, 1985?)
1h20m

I tend to avoid recordings in which opera singers descend from the stage to sing parlour-room art-songs, just as I avoid (or would avoid, if occasion arose) elephants in tutus. In Schubert’s lieder, and especially in this beloved song cycle, my preferences run to lieder specialists — Fischer-Dieskau, Bostridge, Goerne — whose voices are calibrated to an intimate scale.

Now, there is no more operatic an opera singer than Jon Vickers; he is Tristan, Otello, and Peter Grimes. In the realm of big voices there is none bigger. Therefore it was with considerable skepticism that I gave this 30-year old recording of Winterreise a spin, just to see how badly it had turned out. Greatly to my surprise, I loved it. Yes, the voice is big, but he reins it in, and yes, the nuances that other singers give us are sometimes lost, but this is a remarkably intense performance. Vickers has such a commanding presence, that even when he’s dialed his power way down he still grips my attention. Anyone who has heard his Peter Grimes knows that he can inhabit a desperate, wild-eyed man with terrifying credibility, and he brings something of that same character — much subtler, as befits the scale — to Schubert’s protagonist. It’s very much worth hearing.

Here is a thoughtful old review of the disc from the New York Times, and here is Vickers singing “Frühlingstraum”:

**

Flitting lightly over the bulk of the Romantic period, we alight on a branch of early modernism.

Each of us, I suppose, can point to particular corners of the repertoire that, though they be little frequented, have a particular personal fascination. For me one such corner is the choral music of Stravinsky. Everyone loves the Symphony of Psalms, but beyond that masterpiece I believe this music is not very well known, and that is a shame, because it is quite marvellous in its own peculiar way. It is notable that the great bulk of it — if we can speak of ‘bulk’ in this sleek and slender context — is sacred music, a reflection largely of Stravinsky’s own devotion. (Here is a good overview.) This year I made a special effort to get to know this music better, and today I’ll highlight three particularly good records that, between them, cover most of the principal sacred choral pieces that he composed.

Stravinsky: Symphony of Psalms Collegium Vocale Gent Royal Flemish Philharmonic Philippe Herreweghe (Pentatone, 2010) 50m

Stravinsky: Symphony of Psalms
Collegium Vocale Gent
Royal Flemish Philharmonic
Philippe Herreweghe
(Pentatone, 2010)
50m

First up is a disc from Collegium Vocale Gent and the Royal Flemish Philharmonic, under the direction of Philippe Herreweghe. These musicians we usually associate with period-practice baroque, and especially with Bach’s choral music, of which they are exemplary interpreters. To hear them sing Stravinsky might therefore seem an odd fit, but in fact the opposite is true: their ability to produce a clear, cool sound, sans vibrato, with pin-point tuning serves Stravinsky’s music extremely well. (Stravinsky’s own recordings of this music, as well as those of his protege Robert Craft, are generally plagued by exactly the problems Herreweghe et al. avoid: wobbly tuning, ragged ensemble, and ugly tone.) The programme on the disc is a well-conceived one: we get the brief Monumentum pro Gesualdo, a late-period instrumental piece that serves as prelude; then his neo-classical Mass, written “out of personal necessity” in the 1940s; then, as something of a novelty, Stravinsky’s orchestral arrangement of Bach’s Canonic Variations on Vom Himmel Hoch (BWV 769), which is as delicious as you are imagining; and, finally, the mighty Symphony of Psalms. All of it is extremely well done, with the prime attraction probably being the Mass, which sounds splendid. Competition is fierce when it comes to the Symphony of Psalms, and this recording doesn’t displace my favourite (Pierre Boulez), but it’s nonetheless outstanding.

Stravinsky: Threni Collegium Vocale Gent Royal Flemish Philharmonic Philippe Herreweghe (Phi, 2016) 47m

Stravinsky: Threni
Collegium Vocale Gent
Royal Flemish Philharmonic
Philippe Herreweghe
(Phi, 2016)
47m

Next is another disc from the same forces (from 2016, whereas the one just discussed was from 2010). In this case the focus falls on Stravinsky’s thorny late masterpieces, especially Threni, an adaptation of the Lamentations of Jeremiah which had been set by so many Renaissance composers, and Requiem Canticles, Stravinsky’s last completed work, and the one which was performed at his own funeral. Starting in the 1950s, his arch-nemesis Schoenberg safely six-feet under, Stravinsky began to explore the possibilities of serialism, and these two works belong to that period. They are extremely difficult to sing, and, according to taste, nearly as hard to hear. Threni, in particular, has the character of a musical hair-shirt, even though Stravinsky has taken some pains to mitigate the most extreme ill effects of the serial regimen. (For instance, the liner notes point out that in one duet section the two soloists sing simultaneous but differing versions of the tone row, but in such a way that they always form a consonance.) This piece leans heavily on vocal soloists, so heavily that the few other recordings of the piece I have heard pretty much crushed them to dust; Herreweghe has chosen a brave and able group, including the wonderful bass Florian Boesch, and they find the music in this music, which is high praise. The Requiem Canticles, setting a selection of texts from the Latin Requiem, is also serial, but more approachable, and the choir delivers a performance that bests any other that I have heard. The clean, dispassionate tone allows the strange beauty of this music to stand out clearly. The programme is bookended by two shorter pieces. At the beginning we get The Dove Descending Breaks the Air, a fearsome setting of T.S. Eliot that, I laughed to learn, was Stravinsky’s contribution to the Cambridge Hymnal and intended for singing at school assemblies. It’s a wonderful piece, but good grief. And, finally, the disc closes with Da Pacem Domine, a truly lovely little piece, very much in communion with the great stream of Russian sacred music, that falls even more gently on the ear given the terrors through which we have just passed.

Stravinsky: Sacred Choral Works Netherlands Chamber Choir Schoenberg Ensemble Reinbert de Leeuw (Philips, 1999) 1h

Stravinsky: Sacred Choral Works
Netherlands Chamber Choir
Schoenberg Ensemble
Reinbert de Leeuw
(Philips, 1999)
1h

Finally, the best of the bunch is an older recording, from 1999, featuring the Netherlands Chamber Choir and Schoenberg Ensemble, under the direction of Reinbert de Leeuw. It includes some of the same music already discussed (in particular, the Mass and The Dove Descending Breaks the Air), but the principal work is the Cantata, composed in the early 1950s for unusual forces: soprano and tenor soloists, female chorus, and a smattering of instruments (flute, oboe, cor anglais, and cello). It is constructed around the Middle English Lyke-Wake Dirge. Again, this is challenging music for both performers and audience, and I’ve heard it sound pretty wretched. In this performance the chorus is good, as is the soprano soloist (Rosemary Hardy), but the coup de grâce is that Ian Bostridge is the tenor. His lean, agile voice is absolutely perfect for the part, and he sings the heck out of it. It’s fantastic. The disc is rounded out by a variety of shorter works, including the Introitus (in memoriam T.S. Eliot)), the Ave Maria, and a few others. The glory of this disc, apart from Ian Bostridge’s solo turn, is the choral sound, which is lush, smooth, and vibrant, with considerably more body than we get from Collegium Vocale Gent. It’s a nice alternative, and is especially well suited to the generally more amiable music programmed on this disc.

What is missing from these discs? Chiefly the Canticum Sacrum. If you know of a good recording of that piece, I’d love to hear about it. In the meantime, these three give a superb overview of Stravinsky’s sacred music.

Here is a full performance of Threni, from the second disc above:

**

Weinberg: Solo Violin Sonatas Linus Roth (Challenge, 2016) 1h15m

Weinberg: Solo Violin Sonatas
Linus Roth
(Challenge, 2016)
1h15m

For the past few years the music of Mieczyslaw Weinberg has appeared consistently on my list of annual favourites. He is a wonderful composer, largely unknown outside Russia until the last decade or so (largely for political reasons, for as a Polish Jew the Soviets had little motive to champion his music to the West). The “Weinberg renaissance” continues, with quite a few record companies joining the fray: violin sonatas, symphonies, string quartets, an opera, ballet scores, flute sonatas, and his cello concerto were all issued in the past year or so.

Of those that I have heard, my favourite is this set of the three sonatas for solo violin, played by Linus Roth. Roth has been something of champion for Weinberg in recent years, having previously played the violin concerto and all five violin sonatas (with piano). His are not the first recordings of these fearsomely difficult pieces — Gidon Kremer recorded the third (Op.126) a couple of years ago, and the other two have been played by Yuri Kalnits on a set of recordings for Toccata Classics — but this is the first time they’ve been pulled together on one disc.

Like the best of Weinberg’s music, these pieces are intense and intelligent. Writing for a single instrument leaves a composer nowhere to hide; he has to bring his best to it. The music spins out rapidly, with lightning quick changes in tempo, dynamics, and musical ideas. The technical challenges must be considerable; sometimes it seems incredible that all the music is coming from just one instrument. (There is lots of double-stopping, and maybe some higher-stopping too.) This is by no means music to relax to; it asks for all of the listener’s attention, and it practically sparks when it is played. But, as always with Weinberg, it is really music, through and through, top to bottom. It doesn’t sing the way Bach’s solo violin music does, but it argues, laments, harangues, and delights in no small measure.

On this recording the three sonatas, each of which runs about 20-30 minutes, are separated by transcriptions (for violin and piano) of Shostakovich’s Three Fantastic Dances. These provide a welcome change of texture to refresh the palette, and are a nice homage to the friendship the two composers shared. In short: fantastic music, beautifully played, and thoughtfully programmed.

**

Part: The Deer's Cry Vox Clamantis (ECM New, 2016) 1h02m

Part: The Deer’s Cry
Vox Clamantis
(ECM New, 2016)
1h02m

In 2012 my favourite record of the year was Filia Sion, a collection of mostly monophonic chant sung by an Estonian ensemble called Vox Clamantis. That record impressed me with its unusually sensitive ensemble singing and the spirit of “restful poise” that seemed to permeate the performances, and, as I can now report, the bloom is not off the rose: I return to that album regularly and with great enjoyment, and I have been waiting in expectation to hear what Vox Clamantis would do next.

They returned this year with The Deer’s Cry, devoted entirely to the music of their countryman Arvo Pärt. Like chant, Pärt’s music calls for a delicacy of touch, an attentiveness, and a solemnity of manner that would seem to play to Vox Clamantis’ strengths. Suffice to say that those strengths are everywhere in evidence on this record: the singing is faultless, the interpretations are rapt, and the effect on the listener is one of a quiet and gentle intensity. This is ideal Pärt singing. I was not surprised, though I was delighted, to see that Pärt himself participated in the recording sessions, which took place in Tallinn’s Church of the Transfiguration.

The disc opens with “The Deer’s Cry”, a setting of the text more commonly known as St Patrick’s Breastplate (“Christ before me, Christ behind me, etc.”), and includes a number of Pärt’s best known compositions, including “Da Pacem Domine”, “Summa”, and the extended Gospel setting “And One of the Pharisees”. But there is unfamiliar music here too which has been recorded rarely, such as revised versions of “Virgencita” (written to honour Our Lady of Guadalupe) and “Alleluia-Tropus”. There are also two first-time recordings: “Drei Hirtenkinder aus Fátima” (in honour of Our Lady of Fatima) and “Habitare Fratres” (a newly composed piece that was written for and premiered by Vox Clamantis). The disc closes with one of Pärt’s greatest masterpieces, the “Prayer After the Canon”, the concluding section of his mighty Kanon Pokajanen; it is a piece that I can hardly hear without my eyes brimming with tears.

In short, this is a superb overview of Part’s small- and mid-scale choral writing, focusing especially on fairly recent compositions, and sung to an exemplary standard. There are one or two cases in which there is another recording which I would prefer to this one — for instance, the Hilliard Ensemble’s treatment of “And One of the Pharisees” has yet to be surpassed — but all things considered this goes onto my shortlist of favourite Pärt recordings, and is my favourite record of 2016.

Here is a promotional video with pictures and videos from the recording sessions, and here the ensemble sings Alleluia-Tropus:

**

Part: Kanon Pokajanen Cappella Amsterdam Daniel Reuss (Harmonia Mundi, 2016) 1h

Part: Kanon Pokajanen
Cappella Amsterdam
Daniel Reuss
(Harmonia Mundi, 2016)
1h

The other great Pärt recording this year is from Cappella Amsterdam, led by Daniel Reuss, who sing the entirety of Kanon Pokajanen. For almost 20 years the reference recording for this great piece has been the one by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, who premiered it and recorded it in the presence of the composer. It’s a hugely ambitious composition, immensely powerful in effect, and it’s been a matter of some puzzlement to me that more choirs haven’t tackled it. Well, Cappella Amsterdam finally has, and they’ve done it very well. The singing is sensitive and expressive, delicate when it needs to be and full of roaring power when appropriate. The sound is even somewhat better than that enjoyed by the Estonians, which was always a bit recessed. It’s too early to say which of these recordings I’m ultimately going to enjoy more, but certainly this new one has earned a place at the table.

**

That was more than 10 records, but my target was 10 and I got close. A very good year!

Favourites of 2015: Classical music

December 30, 2015

Today the theme is classical music. Quite a few good records came my way, and I’d like to share a few words about my favourites.

levit-variationsI had occasion last year to praise Igor Levit’s recording of Bach’s Partitas, and this year he was back with another outstanding piano recital. I have a special affection for “theme and variations” compositions, and Levit tackles three of the most important: from the 18th-century, Bach’s Goldberg Variations, from the 19th-century, Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, and, from the 20th-century, Frederic Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Be Defeated!.

Obviously it’s the last of these that is the least well-known. The theme of the work, and its title too, are taken from a rather catchy revolutionary Chilean song, and Rzewski puts it through a series of 36 virtuosic variations — from what I understand, this is much the most technically challenging of the pieces on this recording. I have heard only one other recording (of the mere handful available), by Marc-Andre Hamelin, and I’m not sure I’d want to choose between him and Levit. Nor, to be honest, will I return to Rzewski all that often.

The Diabelli Variations is an unqualified masterpiece, on the testimony of those who should know, but I confess that I’ve never been very enamoured of it. All that banging, Ludwig! Part of the problem is the theme: Beethoven was famously asked to contribute a single variation on a rather non-descript waltz, and replied instead with 32 variations of permanent musical importance, but I’ve always found them somehow too cold, too rigid, too downright Teutonic, boots high and elbows swinging, for my tastes. I’ve got a dozen or so recordings of the work in my collection, so I haven’t written it off easily, nor, to be clear, have I written it off yet. We’re still wrestling. With that in mind, I was keen to hear what Levit would do with it, and I must concede that his playing is marvellous. His careful dynamic control goes a long way to alleviating the overzealous banging that has marred other recordings for me, and there’s a certain rhythmic suppleness to his playing that is attractive.

But the principal reason why I want to praise this recording is for Levit’s Goldberg Variations. This is the summit of keyboard music for me, and Levit plays it beautifully. The contrapuntal lines are brought out with great clarity, the tempi are well-chosen, and the whole has a pristine quality, like clear water. One of the things I most appreciate about Levit is the sense of concentration he brings to his playing, a feeling that he is right inside the music: everything flows nicely, transitions are handled deftly, each note falls where it seems it should — everything just makes sense, musically. Those qualities are very much in evidence in Levit’s performance here. It doesn’t dislodge my favourite recording of this piece (by Murray Perahia), but it is undoubtedly a superb interpretation of inexhaustible music.

***

part-tallisThis year was a special year for Arvo Pärt, who celebrated his 80th birthday in September. There were a number of fine recordings of his music issued over the course of the year, but to my mind the finest of them came from an unexpected source: the Tallis Scholars! They are one of the world’s most admired choral ensembles, but over their 40 year history I believe this is the first time they have recorded music not by medieval or Renaissance composers. It’s a very pleasant surprise, and it makes sense too: Part’s music owes a great debt to the music the Tallis Scholars usually sing, so why wouldn’t they sing his music beautifully too? They’ve chosen a nice program: the seven Magnificat antiphons, the Magnificat itself, the jaunty Which Was The Son Of…, then Nunc Dimittis, two of Part’s gospel narrations (The Woman With the Alabaster Box and Tribute to Caesar), his beautiful setting of I Am The True Vine, and they close with the inward-looking Triodion. The voices throughout are crystal clear, tuning impeccable, pacing well-judged, and, most importantly with Pärt’s music but hard to articulate and harder to achieve, they let the sound of the music be in a kind of dialogue with the silence that surrounds it. Not every choir can pull that off.

***

macmillan-luke-passionJames MacMillan — or, I suppose, Sir James MacMillan — is one of the most consistently rewarding contemporary composers, and this year saw the release of the first recording of his St Luke Passion. MacMillan has written a fair amount of music for Holy Week, including a St John Passion and a scintillating Seven Last Words from the Cross. His St Luke Passion is a work for orchestra and chorus, lasting about 70 minutes in performance, and is divided into three parts: a short prelude on the Annunciation that is addressed to Our Lady, then a long central section in which he sets, word by word, chapters 23 and 24 of St Luke’s Gospel, and finally a postlude which draws on texts associated with the Resurrection and Ascension. MacMillan makes the unusual decision to set the words of Jesus in the higher registers (children’s voices) and the words of characters in the story, including Pilate, in the lower registers; this is the opposite of the usual pattern in Passion settings. The part of the Evangelist is sung by a male choir. The word setting is largely homophonic, except for the sayings of Jesus, on which he lavishes some lovely choral writing. There are a few problems on this recording with intelligibility of the texts; the words are familiar to me but even so I sometimes had trouble following if I simply listened. But the whole work is outstanding: vigorous, passionate, confident, and devout; and well worth hearing.

***

vox-silentii-memento-meiI listen to a fair bit of chant, and I have had occasion to recommend particularly good chant recordings in the past. This year is no exception, for this year I discovered the ensemble Vox Silentii, which hails from Finland. Vox Silentii is Hilkka-Liisa Vuori and Johanna Korhonen. They take an approach to chant that I think I have not encountered before: chant is, by its nature, a public music, meant to be sung during the sacred liturgy, and it is typically performed with sizable ensembles adhering to a fairly regular rhythmic plan, but Vox Silentii treat this music as a kind of personal disclosure, an intimate offering that might be arising directly from the heart in prayerful silence. That’s paradoxical, but I’m not sure how to say it more aptly. The singing is quiet and still, gently arising from silence and returning to it, the two voices wonderfully responsive to one another. The two discs which I heard, both of which I can recommend wholeheartedly, are Nox Lucis, a disc of Christmas chants, and Memento Mei, a disc of Easter chants. Mesmerizing.

***

hildegard-vox-cosmicaAn unexpected delight this year was a superb disc devoted to the music of the most recently-named Doctor of the Church: Hildegard von Bingen. Over the past few decades Hildegard’s music has become quite well known, and the catalogue now contains a substantial number of recordings, but this new disc, titled Vox Cosmica, stands out as something special. For one thing, it is sung principally by Arianna Savall (daughter of early music royals Jordi Savall and Montserrat Figueras), whose clear, radiant soprano is perfectly suited to these soaring vocal lines, lending them a gentle ecstatic quality. She is supported by an ensemble called Hirundo Maris, who play a curio-shop of unusual instruments: hardingfele, monochord, tromba marina, nyckelharpa, Roman bells, and lyra, not to mention the usual fiddles, flutes, and harps. Hildegard didn’t write musical accompaniments for her songs, so these are presumably improvised, and they provide a quietly shifting background on which the voice floats. “Inauthentic”, perhaps, but I have no objections to re-creations of old music when done as sensitively and imaginatively as this. The disc features five of Hildegard’s songs, plus a performance of Peter Abelard’s Planctus David, sung by Petter Udland Johansen. Between the medieval compositions are a set of original instrumental “meditations” by Johansen. These are not strictly in the medieval manner, for the creative exchange between past and present is part of the appeal of this project, but neither are they stylistically jarring. I thought they worked quite effectively as interludes. Taken together, this makes for a rewarding hour of listening.

***

haydn-early-londonMy favourite orchestral music of the year comes from an old recording first issued in the late 1960s: George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra’s performances of Haydn’s early London symphonies (Nos.93-98). Haydn’s symphonies are often overlooked, being overshadowed in the popular imagination by Mozart’s and Beethoven’s, but they are delightful and worth getting to know. Haydn’s musical imagination was always active, and his symphonies, though very numerous, are full of fresh ideas. In his London symphonies he’s as good as he ever was. The Cleveland Orchestra is a full-bodied modern orchestra (this recording was made before the period-instrument movement really got off the ground), and they lend Haydn’s music plenty of weight and presence, but without sacrifice of clarity. These recordings have been beloved for decades, and I understand why.

***

christian-gerhaher-2014-nachtviolen-compact-discThis Schubert recital is something of a souvenir for me this year. Back in February I was able to attend a concert in which Christian Gerhaher, accompanied from the piano by Gerold Huber, sang Schubert’s Winterreise. I had been looking for a good opportunity to hear this song-cycle in live performance for a long time, and I was not disappointed. Gerhaher has enjoyed critical plaudits across the board, with good reason. It was the best concert I went to this year. True, it was also the only concert I went to this year.

Nachtviolen is a collection of Schubert’s songs, none of which are taken from Winterreise, but all of which are worth hearing in Gerhaher’s hands. They range from the early An die Nachtigall, written when Schubert was a teenager, to the late Herbst, written sometime during the last year of his life. The singing throughout is immune to criticism, and the sound quality is excellent. There was another Schubert recital I greatly enjoyed this year, a live recording of Ian Bostridge and Julius Drake, and I went back and forth about which of them to prefer for this list. In the end I chose Nachtviolen on the strength of its superior recorded sound.

***

aquilonisThe title of this disc, Aquilonis, means “north wind”, and it is a fitting title for this collection of cool and crisp music from the Scandinavian women of Trio Mediaeval. Glancing over the program, it would seem unlikely to cohere: we have Italian sacred songs from the 12th century, English carols of the 15th century, a handful of pieces by contemporary composers, Norwegian folk songs, and self-composed instrumental interludes, all structured around the 14th-century Icelandic Office of St Thorlak, the patron of Iceland. The miracle is that it does sound like a unified program, and a gorgeous one too. Those who know Trio Mediaeval’s earlier recordings know that they sing with perfect precision and a slightly chilly tone, making the music sounds as though carved from ice. It’s very appealing. Perhaps the most interesting music on this disc are the new compositions, written specifically for Trio Mediaeval by Anders Jormin, Andrew Smith, and William Brooks. Smith, especially, is a composer who impresses me: he writes modest but superbly well-crafted miniatures, and seems (based on there and other pieces I have in my collection) to be drawn to sacred texts. (On this recording he sets Ave maris stella, Ave regina caelorum, and Ioseph fili David). I’d like to know more about him. If I have one complaint about Aquilonis it is that while it coheres musically, it is hard to see the thematic connections between Christmas songs, St Thorlak, fragments of Virgil, Marian hymns, and Norwegian folk. It feels like a jumble. As was the case with their mentors, The Hilliard Ensemble, Trio Mediaeval often seems to treat the pieces they sing as objet d’art, without reference to what the songs are about. That detracts a little from my enjoyment, but I’m willing to forgive such defects when they sing like this. [Hear excerpts]

***

sokolov-fugueThis year I discovered the Russian pianist Grigory Sokolov. (Hat-tip: Bryan Townsend) Sokolov has made only a few recordings over the course of his long career, all of them live recordings, I believe, and so he has not been well-known to record collectors, including myself. But he is a magnificent pianist. He cites both Rubinstein and Gould as important influences, and I think that helps to convey the qualities of his playing: rhythms are sprightly, counterpoint is clear, but the tone remains warm. This year he had his first major-label release, The Salzburg Recital, with a nice program principally of Mozart and Chopin. I enjoyed it, but I also acquired a few of his earlier recordings, and it has been hard for me to decide between his Chopin, his Schubert sonatas, or his Art of Fugue as my favourite. I’m going to go with Art of Fugue. In any case, I’m so pleased to have discovered him.

***

cantigasThe Cantigas de Santa Maria are a collection of vernacular songs compiled in the thirteenth century under the Castilian king Alfonso X el Sabio. It is the largest such collection in existence, consisting of over 400 songs, most of them narrating miracles of the Blessed Virgin. Selections from the collection have been recorded by many different ensembles over the years. I have 8 or 10 such in my collection, but I have never enjoyed one as much as I have enjoyed this one from Hana Blazikova and companions. The early music ‘movement’ is now several generations old, and the best of the young musicians evince a suppleness and gracefulness in their performances borne of familiarity with the musical idiom that was largely absent in the playing of the early music pioneers. This ensemble has that sense of familiarity and comfort in spades. This sounds like natural music-making, not a self-conscious revival of old music. They use authentic instruments of course — gothic and renaissance harps, percussion, and something called a dulcis melos — but they play them as if to the manner born. I can’t resist noting that the recording was made in the wonderfully-named Church of Our Lady under Chain at the End of the Bridge, in Prague. I’m sure they didn’t choose that venue for the name, but for the sound, which is excellent. This is an outstanding disc on every count, and worth hearing.

***

togni-responsioI would also like to praise two very interesting new records that engage with the music of the great medieval composer Guillaume de Machaut. The first is Responsio, by the Canadian composer Peter Togni, in which he has entered into a kind of dialogue with Machaut’s Messe de Nostre Dame. The foundation for Togni’s music is Machaut’s own four-part polyphony, into which Togni has woven a musical line for a bass clarinet (played on this recording by Jeff Reilly). The clarinet part, which is at least partly improvised, disrupts the smooth course that the voices would otherwise follow: modern dissonances and rhythmic aberrations crop up, diverting Machaut’s music into unexpected eddies and alternate courses before it finds its way again. Togni has also written original music for the Introit and a series of “responses” between the movements of the Mass. It’s a fascinating exercise, ably executed by a cast of four wonderful singers, and recommended to listeners who know Machaut’s Messe well. If I were ever to venture into composition (which, for lack of talent, I shall never do) a project like this is what I would want to try.

machaut-holligerThe second recording presents a selection of Machaut’s music alongside “transcriptions” by Heinz Holliger. I have to use the scare quotes because these are far from straightforward transcriptions. The distance between Machaut’s originals and Holliger’s reinventions is sometimes so great as to be inaudible, at least to this listener. Yet, even so, there is again something fascinating about the exercise, which one feels has been a labour of love; and anyone who loves Machaut is a friend of mine. The disc pairs performances of Machaut, ravishingly sung by the Hilliard Ensemble, with Holliger’s creative interpretations, scored for voices and violas. Spiky dissonances and all, this is a treat.

***

Other outstanding recordings:

Schnittke_PsalmsSchnittke: Penitential Psalms
SWR Vokalensemble Stuttgart
Marcus Creed
(Hanssler)

I have long treasured an old ECM recording of these choral pieces sung by the intrepid Swedish Radio Choir; its only real flaw is that the recorded sound is somewhat distant. On this new record the SWR Vokalensemble Stuttgart grapples manfully with the serious technical challenges of this music, and though I don’t think they quite match the fluency and ease of the Swedes, they do have the benefit of superior sound. I listened side by side to the two recordings to try to choose a favourite, and I couldn’t quite decide. Both are very good indeed.

weinberg-symphony10Weinberg: Symphony No.10
Amadeus Chamber Orchestra of Polish Radio
Ewelina Nowicka
(CPO)

Over the past few years I’ve fallen in love with the music of Mieczyslaw Weinberg. This year saw the release of a number of discs of his music — including a first recording of his opera The Idiot — but I kept returning to this fine collection of orchestral music, which includes his Symphony No.10, the very engaging Concertino for violin and string orchestra, and the winsome Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes. It’s a nice collection that shows off Weinberg’s orchestral writing to good effect.

puccini-kaufmannPuccini: Nessun Dorma
Jonas Kaufmann
Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia
Antonio Pappano
(Sony)

A couple of years ago in my year-end review I praised Jonas Kaufmann’s Wagner recital; this year he returned with a fantastic collection of arias by Puccini. The programming is interesting: rather than focus just on the big hits, Kaufmann sings at least one aria from each of Puccini’s operas, so that while we do get the big numbers from Turandot and La boheme, we also get to hear some rarely heard arias from Edgar andLa Rondine. Kaufmann is in wonderful voice. Antonio Pappano directs the orchestra, so you know this is top shelf from start to finish.

contrapunctus-midstIn the Midst of Life
Contrapunctus
Owen Rees
(Signum)

It was also two years ago that I praised a previous recording by the choral ensemble Contrapunctus. On this new disc they sing music from the Baldwin Partbooks, one of the relatively few surviving sources for English (though Latin-texted) polyphony of the sixteenth century. All of the pieces selected for this disc are on the theme of mortality in one way or another, concluding with John Sheppard’s massive Media vita. This music is mostly quite familiar to enthusiasts, but Contrapunctus sing it so beautifully, with a clear, clean blend, that it seems new again. Gorgeous.

Happy birthday, Mr. Pärt

September 11, 2015

Today Arvo Pärt celebrates his 80th birthday. Here is a nice little vignette about him:

He seems like such a lovely man; how I would love to meet him someday. There are very few composers in the past 100 years whose music means as much to me.

A piece I have been listening to frequently over the past few months is Cantiques des degrés, a setting of Psalm 121. It’s a very beautiful composition:

**

A few other Pärt-related posts from days gone by:

Visual tintinnabulation

March 5, 2015

The Tallis Scholars, in a rare foray outside of their usual Renaissance repertoire, have just issued a disc of Arvo Pärt’s music. Here is the group’s long-time leader, Peter Phillips, describing some of it. The video has a nice way of visualizing the music by showing which singers are singing at any one time. It’s entrancing.

Ash Wednesday, 2014

March 5, 2014

Of all the many musical settings of Psalm 51 130, my favourite is Arvo Pärt’s. It is luminously simple, but it never fails to move me. Even if you’ve not heard it before, I expect you would find it not too difficult to sing along with the score, and what better day to do it?

Nunc dimittis

February 2, 2014

Today is the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, also called the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin, also called Candlemas. The Gospel reading tells of how the Christ-Child, brought to the temple for the first time, was received into the arms of St. Simeon and St. Anna, and of how Simeon sang a canticle that has been set to music hundreds of times since:

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace : according to thy word. For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; To be a light to lighten the Gentiles, and to be the glory of thy people Israel.

Here is Arvo Pärt’s setting, sung by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir:

Happy Candlemas!

Arvo Pärt in Conversation

September 29, 2013

Arvo Pärt in Conversation
Enzo Restagno and others
(Dalkey, 2012)
182 p.

This book is a nice pendant to The Cambridge Companion to Arvo Pärt, about which I wrote a few months ago. Roughly half of the present volume is a transcription of a wide-ranging interview which Pärt gave to Enzo Restagno, an Italian musicologist, in 2003. The book is filled out by a technical essay on Pärt’s compositional style by Leopold Brauneiss, a brief reflection on his music by Saale Kareda, transcriptions of several of his award acceptance speeches, and a select (and well-chosen) discography of his music.

The interview was for me the most interesting section of the book; hearing Pärt speak about his music in his own words is far preferable to hearing about it from others. The interview begins with an overview of Pärt’s childhood and early career in Estonia, and the gradual means by which he abandoned modernist compositional techniques and found his own distinctive voice. He makes it clear that the quest for a musical voice was not only a musical challenge: it was deeply personal and spiritual as well. He was dismayed by the manner in which musical composition in the mid-twentieth century was politicized: the use of western-style methods was considered “capitalist” by the Soviet authorities, and that same music was often considered “anti-capitalist” by western commentators. Part grew tired of this conflict, and his remarks are worth quoting at length:

“Do you want to know why I distanced myself from this music? It did it because for me by this time these conflicts had lost their power, and with it their meaning. One might say that I had come to terms with myself and with God — and in so doing, all personal demands on the world had receded into the background…

I have come to recognize that it is not my duty to struggle with the world, nor to condemn this or that, but first and foremost to know myself, since every conflict begins within ourselves. This does not mean that I am indifferent, but if someone wants to change the world then he must begin with himself. I am absolutely convinced of this. If one does not begin with oneself, every step towards the world will be nothing but a big lie and at the same time an attack, and this hidden aggressiveness tends to go on spreading. How to do this is quite a different story, but if one starts off with this idea, everything else appears in a new light.”

No doubt the position articulated here will not be agreeable to everyone, but I must say that it makes me feel that Pärt is a kindred spirit. His inner retreat, and his search for simplicity, led him eventually to the very roots of music in monophonic song, and in particular to the music of Gregorian chant. He acquired a copy of the Liber Usualis, which contains a wide selection of the liturgical chant of the Catholic Church, and he describes this encounter in memorable terms:

“When I began to sing and to play these melodies I had the feeling that I was being given a blood transfusion.”

Pärt spent years filling his private notebooks with monophonic melodies, not exactly reproducing the idiom of Gregorian chant, but taking it, and its “spirit”, as a model. For a long time he was uncertain how to add a second voice to his melodies, from fear that doing so would lead to conflict and complication when what he really sought was unity and simplicity.

Finally he found his way to a unique compositional system which he called tinntinnabulation. The essay in this volume by Leopold Brauneiss is the clearest exposition of the principles of tinntinnabulation that I have yet found. Not that I understood everything, of course. In its simplest form, a composition in this system consists of two voices, each paired with one of two basic musical elements: the scale and the triad. The two voices, though distinct, are closely related: the main voice usually moves stepwise up and down scales, and the second voice sounds notes related to the main voice by the triad. Thus the second voice is, in a sense, tethered to the main voice, and creates a kind of aural halo around it. Pärt expresses this symbiotic relationship using the aphorism “1 + 1 = 1”.

The interview proceeds to discuss Pärt’s later music, including in-depth reflections on many individual compositions. For a reader who knows and loves these pieces, this is absorbing reading; I have not found anything comparable in other sources. Most of Pärt’s compositions have been settings of sacred texts, and he makes some illuminating comments on their strength (“The texts exist independently of us and are waiting for us: each of us has a time when he will find a way to them. This meeting happens when the texts are not treated as literature or works of art but as points of reference, or as models.”). He and Restagno also discuss Pärt’s special relationship with the Hilliard Ensemble, who are still the finest interpreters of his music, and with the ECM record label, which has issued the premiere recordings of most of Pärt’s works. Taken as a whole, it is a fascinating conversation, one which has only deepened my respect for Pärt as both man and musician.

The brief essay by Saale Kareda makes a couple of interesting points about the spiritual roots of Pärt’s music. First, she sees his music, correctly I think, as seeking to restore the “vertical dimension” to human life; the music is basically religious in spirit and is oriented towards God. She thus contrasts his music with that of the “minimalist” school into which he is often put. In his interview, Pärt himself also remarks that he does not understand why people perceive an affinity between his music and that of the minimalists. (I assume he, and they, are thinking of composers like Steve Reich and Philip Glass.) Even more interestingly, Kareda makes a connection between Pärt and Webern, arguing that “both approach the spiritual through mathematical formulae… both their lives’ work consisted of penetrating deeply into the basic musical cell…”. I don’t know if that claim would stand up to detailed scrutiny, but I will say that I, at least, feel a strong attraction to the music of both men, for what feels like similar reasons. This is the first time I have seen another person mention the two together, and that brings a smile to my face.

My suggestion to anyone whose interest in Pärt extends far enough to have read to the bottom of this post: get a copy of this book (perhaps from the library, as I did), buy all of the CDs listed in the discography at the back, listen to them over and over, and then return to this book to read the interview and supplementary material. I can almost guarantee that you’ll receive no better advice today.

For Arvo Pärt

May 28, 2013

arvo-part-cc

The Cambridge Companion to Arvo Pärt
Andrew Shenton (Ed.)
(Cambridge University Press, 2012)
270 p.

“I was searching for a small island of sound, for a ‘place’ inside me, where… a dialogue with God might occur. To find this place was a vital task for me.”

This was how Arvo Pärt described the musical exploration which led him to his distinctive compositional method, which he calls tinntinnabulation — the music of bells. This very enjoyable collection of essays in the Cambridge Companion series examines his music from a variety of perspectives. The contributors, though almost all academics, write in a manner that is intelligible and interesting to non-specialist readers, albeit with occasional overlardings of academic jargon. Still, it is a splendid book for Pärt enthusiasts.

Arvo Pärt grew up in Estonia, on the periphery of the Soviet musical establishment, and initially he wrote serial compositions after the approved academic manner. But, as he later reflected, he began to chafe against the expressive limitations of serial music: “If the human has conflict in his soul and with everything, then this system of twelve-tone music is exactly good for this,” he said, but his heart had grown tired of conflict. In 1972, at the age of 37, he converted to Orthodoxy, and, through a sustained study of medieval and renaissance masters, was gradually led to a drastic simplification of means, to a music founded on the simplest harmonic unit:

“Holy men have left behind all their wealth and are heading for the desert. Similarly, the composer wishes to leave behind the entire modern arsenal and save himself through naked monophony carrying only that which is crucial — the triad.”

(To get a feel for his early style, here is a section from Collage über B-A-C-H, from 1964. This starts off sounding more or less like Bach, but not for long.)

(By way of contrast, here is his earliest tinntinnabuli composition, Für Alina, from 1976. This is very simple music, but the effect is enchanting.)

Though he abandoned serialism, it is interesting that he has retained in his later music an interest in structure and the permutation methods that one generally associates with serialists — but which, perhaps more relevantly, one can also find in the masters of medieval and renaissance polyphony. In one essay, Thomas Robinson comments that in Pärt’s music “fascinating structures lie hidden and ingenious processes are at work”. There are several analyses in this volume describing the rigorous structure undergirding particular compositions; one doesn’t hear it, exactly, but for me simply knowing it is there adds to the interest of the music.

(Here is a concert performance of Spiegel im Spiegel (Mirror in Mirror), for violin and piano, from 1978, played by Anne Akiko Meyers. This piece has a great deal of symmetry built into it. Unlucky moviegoers might remember it from the opening scene of Gus van Sant’s Gerry.)

A complaint about the book is that the idea of tinntinnabulation, the structural principle at the heart of Pärt’s music, is not very clearly explained. Some years ago I read Paul Hillier’s excellent study of Pärt, and from what I recall tinntinnabuli music is based on the interplay of (in its simplest form) two voices: one called the M voice (or ‘main’ voice) and the other the T voice (or ‘tinntinnabuli’ voice). The main voice always, or almost always, moves stepwise, and the T voice accompanies it at specified intervals, often oscillating back and forth between a position beneath the M voice and a position above it. Something like that, anyway. There is a brief discussion of these matters in the present volume, but for me the main points were not made sufficiently clearly.

(Here is one of my favourite Pärt pieces: De Profundis, for mixed choir, from 1980.)

Naturally, in a collection of this sort some of the essays are better than others. The editor, Andrew Shenton, contributed a piece called “Pärt in his own words” which is a wonderful introduction to the composer and his own understanding of his music. It helps that Pärt is such a fascinating and attractive character. The other essay that most appealed to me was called “Radiating from silence: the works of Arvo Pärt seen through a musician’s eyes”, by Andreas Peer Kahler. Without any academic pretensions, Kahler gives a brief but very insightful account of the challenges of this music and the experience of playing or singing it. He observes that the music’s apparent simplicity is deceptive, not least because the lack of virtuosity requires the musician to fall back on clear articulation, strict control, and careful balance, a combination that exposes the weaknesses of many musicians in a most unusual way. The essay I liked the least (there has to be one) was on the topic of “Arvo Pärt and spirituality”; in it, the author tries to assimilate Pärt to a pluralistic, non-committal kind of spirituality. But Pärt himself has said, “If anybody wishes to know my ‘philosophy’, then they can read any of the Church Fathers”; he is very far from being a religious syncretist.

All told, however, this is an instructive and at times fascinating book.

**

Let’s hear a little more music! Lest one get the impression that his music is entirely slow and meditative, listen to his (Russian) setting of the angel Gabriel’s greeting to Our Lady: Bogoróditse Djévo, from 1990. This is an amateur choir and the recording is not top shelf, but the singing is excellent:

Perhaps my favourite of Pärt’s compositions is his massive Kanon Pokajanen, for choir, from 1997. It is a beautiful and imposing setting of the Orthodox Canon of Repentance, and it ends with this tender prayer (text and translation):

Pärt on the BBC

January 19, 2011

The BBC radio programme Music Matters went to Estonia last weekend to interview the wonderful composer Arvo Pärt. It is a fascinating discussion that touches on several topics that have come up here from time to time: music and morals, and music and the sacred, for instance. Each time I hear Arvo Pärt speak I am more impressed by him.

The programme is available for listening only until this Saturday. The segment with Pärt covers roughly minutes 8-22.