Arvo Pärt: Peace Upon You, Jerusalem – L’abbé Agathon – Salve Regina – Magnificat – Nunc dimittis – Stabat Mater
Gloriæ Dei Cantores (choir), Richard K. Pugsley (conductor).
Recording: Church of the Transfiguration, Orleans, Massachusetts (September 2018, May and September 2019) – 69’02
Gloriæ Dei Cantores GDCD065 (Distributed by Naxos of America) – Booklet in English (translations of Latin and French texts)
A selection of works by Arvo Pärt is being released this month by Naxos in honor of the Estonian composer’s 85th birthday next year. In its new album, Stabat Mater, Gloriæ Dei Cantores, an acclaimed ensemble dedicated to religious music at its most serious and sublime, performs six works of spectacular variety by one of the world’s most cherished living composers.
Under the direction of conductor, Richard K. Pugsley, these works dating from 1985 to 2008 engage the intellect and stir and deepen the emotions. Pärt has the uncanny ability to meld influences as diverse as Gregorian chant, Orthodox hymns, European medieval and Renaissance dance tunes, and sounds that are unmistakably contemporary as he retells stories of joy, suffering, and transcendence in a uniquely personal style.
The collection begins with a bright, assertive rendition of Peace Upon You, Jerusalem, Psalm 122, “I rejoiced that they said to me, let us go to the house of Yahweh,” as translated in the New Jerusalem Bible. (This will be more familiar to some readers in the mellifluous King James Version as, “I was glad when they said unto me, Let us go into the house of the Lord.”) The Psalm setting makes good use of the choir’s female voices and contains an impressive variety of musical effects in its brief four-minute length.
Following the Psalm—the lightest and certainly the most upbeat of the works included in this album—is a more sobering parable sung in French about l’abbé Agathon (one of the Desert Fathers) and a leper. Pärt’s music supports the dialogue between the two protagonists and choir as l’abbé Agathon trudges to market (accompanied by the heavy “footfall” of accompanying instruments) to sell his wares, while the leper keeps demanding favors along the way. At the end, we discover that the leper was actually an angel in disguise. The weary saint has passed the compassion test with flying colors.
Half of the selections in this album acknowledge the great role that the Virgin Mary plays in Christianity and in the spiritual lives of followers. Two of these, the Salve Regina (“Hail, Queen”) and Magnificat (“My soul doth magnify the Lord”), offer a cornucopia of Pärt’s harvest of musical ideas. Pugsley’s direction is warm and uplifting as sopranos soar up a silvery ladder of high notes, and overtones take on a substantive role of their own. In the Magnificat, little snips of Middle-Eastern progressions fall here and there (along the lines of C-E-C#), and it feels not only natural, but inevitable. The spaciousness and keen acoustical balance of the recording site, the Church of the Transfiguration in Orleans, Massachusetts, provides personality of its own, as though weaving together chorus, musicians, and overtones in an invisible textured web.
Another small work, Nunc dimittis (“Now dismiss,” or the Song of Simeon), dates to 2001. Simeon cries out that now he may die, as he rejoices that he has seen the infant Messiah. James E. Jordan’s excellent liner notes describe the technical miracles that Pärt achieves in such a small space, but one need not be a music theorist to hear the wonderful convolutions of sound and mysteriously share with Simeon a bond of awe and wonder across the centuries.
All these works are fine examples of Pärt’s œuvre and build up, leading to the culmination point of this album, the Stabat Mater, composed in 1985 in response to a commission by the Berg Foundation. One can only marvel that a man who lived through a World War, the Communist takeover of his native land (forcing him to flee from persecution), and concomitantly with more international tyrants than you could shake a stick at…how such a man could produce a work of such crushing beauty.
This 25-minute hymn is based on a 13th century poem about Mary’s suffering during the crucifixion of her Son. The challenge to a composer of this work is to convey Mary’s conflicted emotions which pair the most unimaginable pain with gratitude for the hope her Son’s passion will bring to humanity. Previous composers have not had the tools that Pärt has at his disposal, tools that he uses to full advantage. These tools include his oddly simple but effectually complex tintinnabuli compositional style. This involves pitting arpeggios (chords that have been broken down and expressed in sequence) against diatonic scales.
This is the oldest Pärt work on this album, but without question, the most gripping and deeply moving. Pugsley and the Gloriæ Dei Cantores deserve the highest conceivable praise for performing this hymn at the level of commitment and excellence it deserves. The same level of excellence is maintained by the 24 string players variously heard in two selections, and who make the eerie dance interludes in the Stabat Mater so chillingly memorable.
Masterworks though they be, Pergolesi’s and Rossini’s take on this theme do not hold the proverbial candle to Pärt’s blistering portrait of a pain so deep that all humanity can share in its experience. I am not speaking especially of the Crucifixion, but rather the pain which it symbolizes, the pain that comes from living in a frail human body, seeing our goals and hopes wither, our loved ones perish.
And yet intertwined with this pain is indescribable joy, Ode to Joy-level joy, the ultimate hope that the human spirit at its best will endure, that we, for something we have done, will endure. The two forces wind around the staff of life in the caduceus, a symbol we associate with the healing arts. They never backslide but rise up and take flight on what Hopkins called, “ah, bright wings.” It is for this touching replication of both pain and transcendence that Pärt’s Stabat Mater is a masterpiece for all time. You do not have to be Christian to appreciate this staggering performance by Gloriæ Dei Cantores. You just have to be alive.