The Hilliard Ensemble
David James countertenor
Rogers Covey-Crump tenor
John Potter tenor
Gordon Jones baritone
Lynne Dawson soprano
Michael George bass
Elizabeth Layton violin
Melinda Maxwell oboe
Elisabeth Wilson cello
Catherine Duckett bassoon
Christopher Bowers-Broadbent organ
Western Wind Chamber Choir
Paul Hillier conductor
Recorded March 1988, St. Jude-on-the-Hill, London
Engineers: Peter Laenger, Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Sometimes music arrests you the moment it begins. Arvo Pärt’s Passio Domini Nostri Jesu Christi secundum Joannem of 1982 is just such a piece. Its opening proclamation speaks directly to the heart. Although the music is rooted in St. John’s Gospel, one need not be a believer to feel its spiritual tug. Pärt’s is one of an outstanding line of St. John Passions, most notably those of Orlande de Lassus (1580), Heinrich Schütz (1666), J. S. Bach (1724), and more recently of James MacMillan (2008). Pärt’s music is distinct from these in that it is so uniquely situated both in and out of its own time. His setting harks back to the monophony of the spoken word and accordingly makes us of an antiphonal structure determined by the rhythms and dynamics inherent in the Latin text. Passio is scored for bass and tenor soloists (as Jesus and Pilate, respectively), an SATB quartet as the refracted evangelist, choir, and a modest assortment of winds, strings, and organ. Under the sensitive direction of Paul Hillier, the musicians achieve an utterly breathtaking unity of diction and tone throughout the entire unbroken 70-minute duration.
Microtonal harmonies dominate the lead solos as the piece leads in from its captivating intro, rendered all the more dialogic with the countertenor’s entrance. The sopranic evangelist adds a feathery fringe to an already gauzy sound, even as it needles the patchwork it borders. The voices build into ascendant clusters against occasional commentary from woodwinds. Michael George is heartwrenching in the title role and sings with an almost orthodox flair. The higher voices work their way into compact triangles in a tessellation of strings and throats as winds weave their way through with the surety of fish swimming through water. A shaft of light cuts through the solace as the organ blossoms with fuller force and the entire choir bursts forth with flowering tendrils of fire, hurtling massive emotions into the cosmos. From this dense overgrowth emerge clusters of voices in a far-reaching conversation. The piece evolves in textually ordered sections, using its own remnants to build new vocabularies along the way. As such, the music feels “recited” more than played (not unlike the sacred works of Alexander Knaifel), gathering energy from the very blessing of articulation and peaking as that energy becomes concentrated when bid to be sung. Vocal lines bleed into one another, brought to life by the connective tissue of faith that flows through them, covering the score’s skeletal structure with skin while leaving stigmata untouched. These brief moments, during which the full weight of the assembled performers comes crashing down, are simply earth shattering and leave us effectively stilled for the quieter contemplations in which they are housed. This album is filled with moments of heart-stopping beauty: a high note from Lynne Dawson at 25:09, John Potter’s solo 90 seconds later, the chromatic climb from David James at 40:40 (and another at 54:11), the proclamation at 58:50, and of course the glorious final minute that leaves us spellbound.
One of the Estonian composer’s most beloved works, Passio is an epitome of the tintinnabuli style and ranks alongside such masterpieces as his Stabat Mater and Miserere. While Passio treats each section of text as its own poetic enclosure, a certain continuity casts the entire work in a light of repentance, a planetary prostration at the feet of something so almighty yet so pliant that only music can even begin to express in human terms that which is anything but.
Of the small handful of versions available on disc, this is the first and most definitive. A manifold approach to the recording is evident in every aspect, striking an ideal balance between intimacy and sheer vastness of sound. Some may be put off by a single long track that offers little respite for the overwhelmed listener, but the rewards that await us at the end far outweigh the patience required to get there.