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CD: Crotchet AmazonUK


Arvo PÄRT (b. 1935)
CD 1
Fratres for strings & percussion (1983, 1991) [8:54]
Fratres for violin, strings & percussion (1992) [10:44]
Festina Lente for strings & harp ad libitum (1990) [7:50]
Fratres for string quartet (1985) [8:41]
Fratres for cello & piano (1989) [11:53]
Summa for strings (1978) [3:45]
Fratres for eight cellos (1983) [11:51]
Fratres for wind octet & percussion (1990) [7:45]
Cantus - In Memoriam Benjamin Britten for strings & bells (1977) [7:39]
Hungarian State Opera Orchestra/Tamas Benedik
rec. December 1995, Alpha-Line Studio, Festetich Castle, Budapest, Hungary
CD 2
Cantate Domine Canticum Novum (1977, rev. 1996) [3:28]
Berliner Messe for choir and string orchestra (1992) (Kyrie [2:43]; Gloria [3:59]; Alleluia Verses 1 & 2 [1:58]; Veni Sancte Spiritus [5:07]; Credo [4:14]; Sanctus [2:51]; Agnus Dei [2:08])
De Profundis (1980) [5:53]
Summa (1977) [4:40]
The Beatitudes (1990 rev. 1991) [7:52]
Magnificat (1989) [7:16]
Elora Festival Singers and Orchestra/Noel Edison
rec. May 2003, Grace Church on the Hill, Toronto, Canada
CD 3
Passio (1984): (Passio Domini Nostri Jesu Christi Secundum Joannem (St. John Passion) [9:38]; Et Adduxerunt Eum Ad Annam Primum (Jesus is interrogated by the high priest and denied by Peter) [11:28]; Adducunt Ergo Jesum A Caipha In Praetorium (Jesus is judged by Pilate and reviled by the people) [26:18]; Tunc Ergo Tradidit Eis Illum Ut Crucifigeretur (Jesus is crucified at Golgotha) [14:27])
Tonus Peregrinus/Antony Pitts
rec. May-June 2001, Abbey Church of St Peter & St Paul, Dorchester-on-Thames, UK
NAXOS 8.503199 [3 CDs: 79:00 + 52:03 + 61:48]
Experience Classicsonline

Back in 1985, I somehow stumbled on the first Arvo Pärt album released on ECM. I don't recall how I found out about this music; it certainly wasn't getting airplay on the radio, especially not in Paris, where I was living at the time. The album, Tabula Rasa, contained four instrumental works by Pärt: two versions of Fratres (a piece which, alas, has seen numerous arrangements and versions), Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten, and the 26-minute title track, Tabula Rasa, a concerto for two violins, prepared piano and string orchestra. Shortly thereafter, I attended a concert of this music, in a small hall in Paris, performed by Gidon Kremer - the first Pärt advocate, and the performer of many of his works on ECM - and a small orchestra. It was a riveting performance; the music was new, yet ancient; it was minimalist, yet romantic; and I'll never forget how Tabula Rasa faded away to silence, several bars of which were scored at the end of the work.
After that time, I bought new Arvo Pärt albums as they were released. He was well marketed by ECM, with new albums released roughly once a year, featuring well-known performers (Tabula Rasa had Keith Jarrett on piano; the later Passio and other vocal discs had the Hilliard Ensemble). Yet over time, I grew weary of this music. It turned into a cliché as this style - this combination of early music and modern idioms - started showing up as soundtracks for TV commercials. This is certainly not Pärt's fault; he composed the music he wanted to compose, and much of what was released involved works he had composed in decades past. But the resemblance of one work to another, the sterile treatment of the music, the almost reverential tone used to present it, package it, and perform it - I attended several other performances of this music over the years - and the Latin titles of albums and works, making them sound ancient, grew wearying. Pärt's bearded, monkish appearance, and solemn attitude, only helped to create an image of "spiritual" music. There’s also the equating of choirs with spiritual music, most likely because choirs sing in churches, and back in the middle ages, that’s where music was performed. As if people were more “spiritual” in the middle ages, and as if choirs somehow are “authentic” ensembles for spiritual music. I have a feeling that if the monks of Chartreuse had electricity, someone would have invented the Fender Stratocaster in the 15th century, and they would have discovered how wicked a Strat sounds in a cathedral …
For years, Pärt's music was only available on ECM, a cliché-ridden label if there ever was one. Then other performers got interested in this music, and other labels started releasing discs. I recall purchasing one disc on Chandos in the late 1980s or early 1990s. Finally, Naxos got into the game, releasing a number of Pärt discs, including the three discs in this "box set". These three discs, simply repackaged in a sleeve, were originally released in 1997, 2003 and 2004. The first disc, Fratres, Festina Lente, Summa, is a collection of instrumental works, including no fewer than six versions of Fratres. The other two discs are works for choir and instruments, which may be the type of Pärt's music that is best known.
The first disc of instrumental works is probably the side of Pärt that is least known today. His choral music with its apparent "spirituality" gets more airplay and is recorded more. But these works, some of them composed in the late 1970s and early 1980s, have a bit more "bite" than the smooth choral pieces. Alas, does one really need to obsess so much about Fratres - his signature instrumental work - to include six versions of the piece? It's a bit like making an early music disc featuring a dozen versions of Dowland's Lachrymae; oh, right, Jordi Savall did that already ... In any case, this disc contains the following versions: Fratres for strings and percussion; for violin, strings and percussion; for string quartet; for cello and piano; for eight cellos; and for wind octet and percussion, which, according to the liner-notes, "follows the original conception of 1977). How they left out the version for kazoo sextet and prepared marimba is beyond me. While this is an attractive piece, does it really need such a variety of versions? And all of them on one disc? And not even the real original version, composed for string quintet and wind quintet? Fratres is, in a way, the opposite of Tabula Rasa, which crumbles slowly as it progresses; Fratres builds from simple pianissimo string phrases to very slightly more complex, louder string phrases, with the percussion (in the first version) acting as punctuation for the different sections. Then, after reaching a pinnacle of loudness - not very high, nevertheless on the fortissimo scale - the subsequent phrases decrease in volume to return to their origins. The string phrases vary little - they just add a few notes and get louder and softer. This recording seems to be in a hurry, though - maybe to fit all six versions on one disc?. The "original" ECM recording clocks in at 11:30, and the first version is just shy of nine minutes. I may be swayed by my familiarity with that first recording on ECM - I played that record a lot when I first got it - but the speedy tempo of this version takes away any "deepness" the music may have, and it limits the contrast between the different volumes of the string phrases.
The violin, strings and percussion version begins with the violin playing arpeggios, where the first version was simply strings playing chords. But after about a minute, the arpeggios stop, and the violin plays a sort of obbligato melody above the strings. They sound almost exactly like those of the first version; surprise, it's probably exactly the same music! The violin then plays some Glassian melodies that recall Einstein on the Beach, then some riffs that contrast a little with the smoothness of the strings, and then … well … it all fades away. And then there's then a string quartet version which sounds a lot like the first two versions, then a cello and piano version, which sounds different, but not much, then the eight-cello version, which sounds like eight cellos playing the same thing, then the wind octet and percussion version, which sounds a bit like a minimalist Gran Partita … or not. And this album contains a few other works, which sound like other works if you're paying attention.
The Berliner Messe recording features a large-scale work (the title piece) originally written for choir and organ, but here in a later version for choir and strings. At least they only include one version of it on the disc. It is, as is all of Pärt's work, attractive, almost cloying in its attractiveness. This is "easy listening" classical music, that makes few demands on listeners, and offers limited rewards. It is "relaxing", "spiritual" (or so it is claimed), and all the edges are smooth. The performance is fine, as the choir sounds like a single voice; there are no contrapuntal effects here, as there are in, say, Bach's motets. The remainder of this disc comprises five other choral works, also well-performed and attractive. I especially like De Profundis, with deep voices (profundis = deep; nothing hidden there...), though I feel that the ECM recording by the Hilliard Ensemble is much more … well, profound. They perform the work at a slower tempo - just shy of seven minutes, compared to a bit less than six on this recording - the deep voices are deeper, and the organ is more prominent.
The third disk is the Passio … or the St. John Passion, but Latin words sound better. It's a relatively large-scale work for soloists, choir, a smattering of solo instruments (violin, oboe, cello and bassoon) and organ. If you've followed up until now, you've probably figured out that it sounds a lot like the music on the other discs, especially like the Berliner Messe; at least it doesn't sound like Fratres. The recording is spacious, and the music has a lot of reverb; it was recorded in a church that sounds especially good with this music. That gives it a more "ethereal" sound, that some might want to call "spiritual" or "timeless", or something to that effect. This work does have a unique arrangement, for a passion; the Evangelist's role is taken up by a quartet of singers (SATB), which, at one-voice-per-part, offers an interesting texture, providing a real contrast between the soloists' parts and that of the Evangelist. But like some of the other works in this set, it seems that the performers are in a hurry. The first recording by the Hilliard Ensemble on ECM was about 70 minutes long; this one is 61 minutes. It seems that Pärt's notes need to breathe a bit more to have their full effect, and this performance sounds just a bit too "light" because of the tempo.
Now you may take umbrage at my attitude toward this music; you may even like listening to it, which, I confess, I did for a number of years, before it all resembled itself, like a showroom full of Ikea furniture. But I’ve grown out of this now. If you listen to two albums by Pärt - one instrumental and one vocal - you’ve heard the extent of his compositional range. If you do like his music, I’d recommend checking out the ECM discs; I believe that the composer was involved with their recordings, and their performances, tempi and sound are generally better - though the recording of this Passio is quite spacious, and well-suited to the music. I’m especially partial to the texture that the Hilliard Ensemble provides in its recordings, and they feature on several of the ECM discs The first few discs on ECM - Tabula Rasa, Arbos, and the Passio - give you a fine introduction to Pärt’s music, and, unless you’re obsessive, you’ll probably want to stop there. Though having an endless number of Fratres versions seems to be designed for obsessives too. But these Naxos discs do come at the Naxos price, and this three-disc set is a good bargain.
Kirk McElhearn

Each CD in this set was previously released individually: CD1 - 8.553750; CD2 - 8.557299 (review of SACD version) & CD3 - 8.555860 (review)

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