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Arvo PÄRT (b.1935)
Wallfahrtslied (Pilgrims’ Song, Psalm 121) for male choir and string orchestra (1985) [8:43]
Orient and Occident for string orchestra (2000) [7:21]
Nunc dimittis for mixed choir a cappella (1989) [6:33]
Fratres for string orchestra and percussion (1977) [11:13]
Te Deum for three choirs, prepared piano, string orchestra and tape (1984/5, rev. 2007) [29:44]
Gordan Nikolic (violin)
Netherlands Chamber Choir and Orchestra/Risto Joost
rec. Muziekgebouw aan het U, Amsterdam, 2-5 March 2012. DDD
Booklet with texts and translations included.
GLOBE GLO5252 [63:59]


 
This recording offers a good selection of Pärt’s music which will suit beginners and experienced Pärt-fanciers alike. I imagine that most of us fall between those two extremes; we know what to expect by now, if only from his Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten. In the rather lazy filing cabinet of my mind he’s listed with the modern East European minimalists, Rautavaara, Górecki, Vasks – mostly music with a slow tempo, rather austere to the point of melancholy, but meditatively and ethereally beautiful. As a greatly simplified summary, that covers most of the music on this new recording.
 
Risto Joost has recorded three of these works, Wallfahrtslied, Nunc Dimittis and Te Deum, before, with Voces Musicales and the Tallinn Orchestra on Estonian Record Productions ERP2309, a recording which Gavin Dixon judged a fitting tribute to the composer for his 75th birthday in September 2010 – review. Since then, though only a couple of years have elapsed, Joost’s timings have shortened quite noticeably except for the Te Deum where the new recording is mere seconds faster than the earlier recording.
 
Wallfahrtslied (Pilgrim Song) is a setting of one of the psalms sung by pilgrims going up to Jerusalem. It was written to commemorate the untimely death of a friend. It establishes the tone for the rest of the music – approachable, yet exotic – and the performance brings out those qualities admirably.
 
As the title suggests, Orient and Occident juxtaposes music from East and West. There’s an award-winning rival recording on ECM, which also includes the Wallfahrstlied (ECM 472 080-2). I haven’t heard it, though it has been well received, not least by Tony Haywood – review. I can’t imagine that it improves on Risto Joost and his team in either work.
 
This performance of Nunc dimittis is up against strong competition from Polyphony and Stephen Layton on Hyperion CDA30013. Layton’s mid-price release is in Hyperion’s 30th anniversary series. The Nunc dimittis is coupled with Triodion, Salve Regina and other works, which I described as ‘a very valuable collection of Pärt’s distinctive, often complex, but approachable choral music’ in my October 2010 Download Roundup. Joost takes a minute less than Layton, whose 7:33 is exactly the same as Joost’s erstwhile self on Estonian Records. It’s not the fastest time on record – Noel Edison and the Elora Festival Singers on a Naxos recording take 6:19 (8.570239 – review). It doesn’t sound in any way rushed.
 
Under Layton’s direction the music emerges as it were from nowhere, which is fine for a late-evening canticle (Evensong or Compline), but the delicacy of his performance masks the words until about half way through, so that we obtain merely a sensation of their meaning. That’s perhaps taking what I’ve described as the ethereal aspect of Pärt’s music to extremes. I very much like the way that the performance is shaped to be a journey from silence to acclamation and back into silence - from darkness to light and from light to repose.
 
Joost allows the tempo and volume to increase rather earlier than Layton, though the words are still almost as hard to hear at first. It’s only by comparison with Layton, however, that I find this performance slightly less moving; the singing is just as fine and some will prefer the slightly faster pace and slightly greater audibility of the text.
 
Fratres exists in six different versions: if you want them all, you’ll find them with Cantus, Summa and Festina lente, on Telarc CD80387: I Fiamminghi conducted by Rudolf Werthen. It’s a work that has been recorded many times but this version, with violin solo admirably performed, can stand on its own against the best of them.
 
The basic concept is mathematical – variations on a chant-like theme. The result is as hypnotic as any of Pärt’s music. Though it’s the earliest of the works here, it heraldedPärt’s ‘new’ style and is perfectly in keeping with the rest of the music. Though Joost is a little faster than on his earlier recording in most of the music on Globe, he’s slightly slower than the performance of the strings and percussion version of Fratres on The Very Best of Arvo Pärt, an inexpensive EMI twofer which Rob Barnett praised – review. RB speaks of the Tallis-like intensity of the music – perhaps he was thinking especially of the Vaughan Williams Tallis Fantasia, which this performance certainly brings to mind. I can’t imagine the music being better done.
 
Like the Nunc Dimittis, Pärt’s setting of the morning canticle Te Deum arises as if from nothing. Don’t expect this to be as approachable as Fratres or to sound like an outburst of praise. Even the hymn of the cherubim and seraphim, Sanctus, sounds contemplative rather than acclamatory. The music bursts into life at the following words: Pleni sunt cæli et terra majestatis gloriæ tuæ – heaven and earth are full of the majesty of thy glory – before returning to contemplation, a pattern regularly repeated throughout this piece.
 
The work is over-long for liturgical use but it leaves a powerful impression in a performance as intense as that here. Joost was wise not to push the tempo any more than on his earlier recording. In the 1990s Pärt avoided the obvious step of revising his 1984/5 Te Deum in fulfilling a commission from the City of Milan to celebrate the anniversary of the death of St Ambrose, the putative author of the Te Deum. He set instead an Italian text commemorating the origin of the canticle, Dopo la vittoria. It’s included with Nunc Dimittis on the Hyperion recording of Triodion to which I’ve referred. It was worth the wait for this 2007 revision of the Latin text.
 
The recorded sound is very good throughout. Although the acoustic is rather resonant, it’s marginally clearer in the Nunc Dimittis than the Hyperion, though that’s partly due to the difference in interpretations.
 
The notes are brief but informative and all the texts and translations are included, though a few typos have crept in here: ‘venerator’ for ‘veneratur’ in the Te Deum; ‘they people Israel’ in the Nunc Dimittis.
 
Brian Wilson
 

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