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Arvo PÄRT (b. 1935)
Peace upon you, Jerusalem (2002) [4:50]
L’abbé Agathon (2008) [14:34]
Salve Regina (2002) [11:35]
Magnificat (1989) [6:28]
Nunc dimittis (2001) [8:22]
Stabat Mater (1985/2008) [25:09]
Gloriæ Dei Cantores/Richard K. Pugsley
rec. 2018/2019, Church of the Transfiguration, Orleans, Massachusetts, USA

This is my first encounter with the American choir, Gloriae Dei Cantores. The booklet is careful to give a translation of the choir’s name, Singers to the Glory of God, and reading a little further one learns that not only is the choir based in the church where this recording was made, but its “members’ ongoing life of the foundation of the choir’s artistry”. Among the names in the list of thirty or so singers almost half are members of holy orders. The choir “holds a passionate dedication to illuminate truth and beauty through choral artistry, celebrating a rich tradition of sacred choral music from Gregorian chant through the twenty-first century.”

We also learn from the booklet that Richard K. Pugsley has been conducting the choir for more than fifteen years. We read of his “passion for enlivening the sacred texts of choral literature as relevant and present encounters of sung prayer”. This seems equally to extend to his appearances as a solo singer, though he has taken the title role in performances of Vaughan Williams’s “morality” – the term the composer preferred to “opera” – The Pilgrim’s Progress, a sacred work in only a very limited sense. A little internet research finds Pugsley as soloist in Grieg’s Four Psalms with this same choir conducted by Elizabeth C. Patterson, on a disc recorded in 2009.

The choir certainly has an extensive discography, and a highly varied one, albeit exclusively sacred. In this latest disc they turn to the figure who, according to James E. Jordan’s extensive booklet note, “is today’s most performed ‘classical’ composer.”. I’m in no position either to confirm or refute such a claim, but as a choral conductor myself I can certainly attest that the composer’s music invariably makes a powerful impression on audiences. One of the reasons for this must surely be its apparent simplicity, allowing listeners to appreciate it at first hearing. The sincerity of the music also plays its part, as does the fact that it relies on traditional scales and key centres. But Pärt also has an uncanny ability to produce, quite simply, beautiful sounds that seduce and convince the listener. There are many examples of that in this well constructed programme.

Three of the works are unaccompanied, Peace Upon You, Jerusalem, for women’s voices only, and the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis. Salve Regina is organ accompanied, and L’abbé Agathon and the Stabat Mater are accompanied by a string group which is unnamed, though its members are, and rightly so, as they play extremely well. The organ part in the Salve Regina is of crucial importance, and James E. Jordan certainly understands the demands of the piece, so it’s a pity – and an opportunity missed – that it is so distantly balanced in relation to the choir. This is the only criticism I would want to make about what is, otherwise, a fine recording in a generous church acoustic. The booklet notes are extensive and informative, though there are occasional signs of missionary zeal of which the music has no need. All sung texts are provided, including English translations of the French and Latin.

Comparing these performances with others is not always valid, as this is music usually sung by, and probably conceived for, smaller groups. The Stabat Mater, for instance, was originally written for solo voices. The singing is not without its weaknesses. There is some under the note singing in Peace Upon You, Jerusalem, and the horribly exposed opening of the Magnificat is not quite so impeccable as it is in performances by smaller, professional groups. Pärt is often unsparing of his singers – note that earlier I referred to this music as apparently simple! – and the held top B toward the end of the Salve Regina, admittedly optional, has the chosen sopranos under some strain, as does a similarly high-lying and more extended passage in the Stabat Mater. The pronunciation of the French text of L’abbé Agathon hangs fire. There are times when one seems to hear imperfections of tuning when it is, in truth, the rather pronounced vibrato that is causing the problem, and that in music that demands, almost above all else, purity of tone. This might seem like a long list, and one has a duty to point out these factors, but they are slight, and many, perhaps most, listeners will not be perturbed by them when confronted by the commitment of the singing and the conductor’s view of the music. These are all creditable performances that often compare favourably with those from even the most exalted of groups. Indeed, I prefer the sublime Stabat Mater here, sober, poised, honest and dignified, to that of Paul Hillier’s Theatre of Voices on Harmonia Mundi. It is the final work on the disc and brings the collection to an extremely moving close.

William Hedley

Previous review: John Quinn

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