Because of both his religious devotion and how well his "tintinnabuli" style works with massed voices, choral music has long been the most important part of the output of Estonian "mystic minimalist" composer Arvo Pärt (b. 1935). The past few months brought two excellent recordings focusing on his choral works.
Due to its newer material, the ECM album here (released last month) is the big must-have for fans of . The pieces entirely new to his discography are, I think, the title track, "Alleluia –Tropus," L'Abbe Agathon, "Estonian Lullaby," and "Christmas Lullaby." However, even the older pieces that have been recorded for other labels -- "Beatus Petronius," "Salve Regina," "Statuit ei Dominus" -- make their ECM debuts in new arrangements, so in a sense, almost everything here is a premiere.
The very substantial title track, for choir and string orchestra, is the newest piece here (2009). Pärt sets a prose text by Staretz Silouan (1866-1938), an ascetic monk of Mt. Athos who was canonized by the Eastern Orthodox Church in 1987. It has some haunting moments when minor seconds float over things with a bracing yet not grating tartness. If not all of the piece offers such concentrated beauty, well, long choral works can be like that; it is still an effective and well-crafted piece. Though the accompaniment is just strings, Pärt draws a wide range of textures from them: slashing chords, keening sustained tones, thick or thin voicings, wide or tight ranges, delicate pizzicato. He deploys the choir with similar attention to variety, and rolls out the text in spacious, unhurried fashion, oscillating between contemplation and drama. Fans of Pärt and of modern choral music will find it a welcome addition to the repertoire.
Then come the three familiar tracks, all revised last year. The gentle "Beatus Petronius" and the boisterous "Statuit ei Dominus" are antiphonal pieces, and their former two-organ accompaniments were reworked for wind octet and string orchestra, sometimes opposed, sometimes combined; for good measure, "Beatus Petronius" also includes tubular bells. Similarly, the sweetly melodic "Salve Regina," its organ replaced by strings, now also sports a celesta. The new versions are neither better nor worse than the originals, but they are sufficiently different to be worth hearing.
L'Abbe Agathon, for soprano and baritone soloists, female choir, and string orchestra, is the next-longest piece here. This too has been revised, more drastically, as it began as an eccentrically scored work for soprano soloist and eight cellos. It depicts St. Agathon tested by an angel in the guise of a leper. As the story unfolds, Pärt again proves himself a master of shifting textures.
The other pieces are short; the two lullabies that close the album are especially sweet and simple.
Released in June, Pilgrim's Song features no new material, not even new arrangements, but it is highly recommendable nonetheless. It is nearly Pärt's greatest (shorter) choral hits: "Ein Wallfahrtslied" (its translation is the album's title), the brilliantly structured Magnificat (it alternates passages of quarter notes and longer notes in such a way that it never becomes predictable, even keeps one slightly off balance), Summa (a credo setting), the ethereal Nunc dimittis, and his mighty Te Deum.
Of course, Pärt followers will already have all of these, but the sonic production here is stunningly good -- utterly natural (which can't be said of ECM's crystalline yet slightly artificial perspective, fine though it is), powerful yet clear, with thrilling dynamic range. These qualities are especially appreciated in the half-hour Te Deum, which ends magically. There's also a little more breadth to Joost's rendition of the Te Deum, and Nunc dimittis as well, whereas in the Magnificat and the coolly intense Summa he offers slightly more taut readings than the competition, which works especially well in the Magnificat, which really is one of the great a cappella choral compositions of the 20th century. Bookending the three a capella pieces with the two including orchestra works well. This is an excellent album in every respect. - Steve Holtje
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based composer, poet, and editor. His song cycle setting five of James Joyce's Pomes Penyeach can be heard here.