Arvo Pärt: Veni Creator – The Deer’s Cry – Psalom – Most Holy Mother of God – Solfeggio – My heart’s in the highlands – Peace upon you, Jerusalem – Ein Wallfahrtslied – Morning Star – Stabat Mater
Theatre of Voices, Ars Nova Copenhagen, Christopher Bowers-Broadbent (organ), NYYD Quartet, Paul Hillier (conductor)
Recorded at Garnisonskirken, Copenhagen, Denmark (June 2010) – 75’
harmonia mundi HMU 807553 – Booklet with essays, texts and translations in English, French and German
Although not as widely proclaimed as a mere decade ago, it is still not unusual to hear that “Classical Music” is dying. Orchestras are broke, record labels are going extinct and things are in dire shape. However, in many ways, “Classical Music” has never been better off. There are more professional orchestras than ever before, and in the age of the internet, the proliferation of some of the finest performances of all time is just a Facebook post away. What we have here in this latest effort from Paul Hillier and his Theatre of Voices is yet another indication that those of us who love “Classical Music” have never had it so good. This recording adds to the embarrassment of riches that is the constantly growing catalogue of Arvo Pärt recordings. As it proves, the revered Estonian master is most deserving of having his beautiful work recorded as the forces under Paul Hillier do a fine job indeed.
Arvo Pärt’s other-worldly musical language is inspired in these works, most of which were written or revised in the past 10 years. These are some of his most intimate and devout works. Mostly for chamber choir, Hillier utilizes his five-voice ensemble, Theatre of Voices, and augments it with Ars Nova Copenhagen, a group of 18 total. Two pieces for string quartet, finely executed by NYYD Quartet, are featured as sort of intermezzi. Given Pärt’s placid, minimalist language, this disc might have been at risk of lulling the listener or, rather, fading into the background altogether. However, the intensity and thoughtfulness of the performances ensure this is not the case. Hillier and his groups do an outstanding job with pieces such as “The Deer’s Cry,” and “Most Holy Mother of God.” These are pieces that build in intensity and complexity into a profound emotional state of devotion. Hillier and Ars Nova Copenhagen manage to fill the recording space with a thunderous sound, giving piercing accuracy to Pärts harmonies. Furthermore, this is not an ensemble whose technical proficiency is the raison d'être. The subtle intensity in their delivery of the sacred texts is powerful and authentic. The grace of their phrasing and skill of ensemble is inspired. The only piece that comes off less than a complete success is “Peace Upon You, Jerusalem.” It never quite takes off as a coherent melding of text and music. It seems the singers may be trying too hard to set the text apart dramatically from Pärt’s other music.
In any case, this is a minor reservation. With performances such as the opening “Veni Creator,” and “Morning Star,” this is clearly a first-rate choir singing first-rate music. Pärt’s compositional style is one that wears exceedingly well. Most admirably, it is a style he is deftly able to mold to his chosen text. The music is undoubtedly Pärt’s, but it is fresh and moving. The soprano piece “My heart’s in the highlands,” is a poignant ballad that the composer manages to bring immediacy to by using a solo voice who never strays from three notes. Else Torp sings it with raw authenticity. The final piece on the disc, Pärt’s Stabat Mater from 1985, is given a memorable treatment. Performed by just three singers and three strings, it is authoritative and supremely confident in the best possible way. It is foreboding in ensemble and technique, but entrances are crisp and unobtrusive; intonation is perfect and the three singers manage to find an ideal coalescence of vowel and tone. It is remarkable. The listener is left with the text and the music, both of incomparable pitifulness.
On balance, it is hard to imagine a better service to Pärt’s unique and important music than this disc. Hillier’s two groups are nothing short of fantastic. The playing of NYYD Quartet and Christopher Bowers-Broadbent provide a fine compliment to the singers and convey a unique understanding of Pärt’s writing. The team at harmonia mundi do a beautiful job in capturing the details of the performance space and balancing the singers and instrumentalists. The SACD surround sound is lush yet immediate, with a warm sheen to the higher frequencies. Fans of choral music and Pärt’s music in particular should not hesitate to add this to their collections. As long as recordings like this keep being produced, the “Classical Music” world will be in fine shape.
Matthew Richard Martinez