“Works for Choir”
Arvo Pärt: The Beatitudes – Nun Eile Ich Zu Euch – Summa – Sieben Magnificat–Antiphonen
Vilnius Municipal Choir Jauna Muzika, Vaclovas Augustinas (artistic director)
Recording: Vilnius, Lithuania (1989 – 1991) – 39’20
Cugate Classics CGC051 CD (or CGC051 LP) – (Distributed by Naxos of America) – Notes in English
We can’t feel too sorry for Arvo Pärt, the Estonian composer of secular and religious music. Last year, he fell to second place in a ranking of most performed living composer after holding first place for eight years (John Williams, composer of sci-fi soundtracks as well as concert-hall selections, dethroned the incumbent in 2019).
Pärt has more than reaped a rich harvest of awards, honors, recordings, and performances since a profound spiritual awakening in the 1970s prompted him to compose in a new style. He studied Gregorian chant, early music, and musical mathematics, and developed a style that combines melody and harmonic triads in a specific way to create an otherworldly sound (the technique is called tintinnabuli).
Ousted by the Soviets, he wandered through Europe with his family, during which time his haunting but substantive musical creations gained vast international interest. Now living again in Estonia, he is probably the only composer to have received honors from major theological schools as well as from governments and music institutions.
Some of Pärt’s most beloved choral masterworks have been released on Cugate Classics as, Arvo Pärt Works for Choir with the Vilnius Municipal Choir Jauna Muzika of Lithuania, artistic director Vaclovas Augustinas. Whether you are new to Pärt or simply want these selections, recorded at an earlier time, in one convenient place, this is an album worth becoming a permanent part of any music lover’s collection.
While the selections are based on biblical or liturgical texts, one does not need to be religious in order to appreciate the meditative basses and soaring soprano voices that resonate through eleven tracks. In The Beatitudes, which opens the album, a halo of slightly dissonant tones creates a shimmering effect, illuminating the text. Here, Jesus, perhaps represented by a low note in the organ, tells his followers that the poor and forgotten are foremost in God’s mercy and love. The hymn, Nun Eile Ich Zu Euch (“Now I Rush to You”), taken from the Canon of Repentance, has a syncopated feel as voices overlap and seem to tumble over each other.
The Magnificat for a choir divided into six voices is one of the more interesting selections in this album from a purely rhythmic perspective. Here, in both the Eastern and Western Christian traditions, Mary, who is pregnant with Jesus, praises God with a hymn of joy and praise recorded in the Gospel of Luke.
What I find fascinating about this selection is how Pärt uses frequent changes of rhythm to express the excitement and rapture of a young woman who is soon to give birth to the Messiah. For much of this seven-minute work the rhythm changes with every bar, with the unit of measure—the quarter note—remaining the same throughout.
Nearly every key signature in the range from 1/4 to 12/4 appears (with the exception of 2/4), with an explosion of energy midpoint at the word “generationes” (14/4), and at the very end, “Magnificat” (12/4) and “Dominium” (a staggering 22/4). Clearly Pärt is not only a master tintinnabulist, but also knows how to strategically implement an expressive beat.
Following a Summa (the Credo, or “I believe” section of the Mass) characterized by changing motifs over a solid, unchanging structure, the album concludes with the Great Antiphons, seven prayers sung during Advent, the month before Christmas. Also known as the O Antiphons (because each prayer begins with “O”), they paint a portrait of humankind weary with the afflictions of the world and aching for redemption, in this case, the coming of Christ which has been promised to the patient faithful.
Pärt’s response to this text is to the point and remarkably brief. These are not pretty hymns, but concise expressions of deep yearning. In each setting, there is something in the music that expresses the words. The first antiphon, “O Highest Wisdom, come, while reaching end to end in sweetness and ring all…” soars high on an uplifted melody, tolling with bell-like clarity at the suggestion of eternity. The second is of a very different character, with deep bass voices recalling God’s appearance to Moses in the burning bush.
The antiphons grow in intensity as they progress, leading the faithful to Christmas Eve. “O King of Nations, Come” a restless and impetuous antiphon 10, leads to “O God among Us, Come,” the 11th and final “prayer” with its aching forward motion, and a high repeated E that is slightly shrill and irritating, only to stop suddenly and drop into silence.