Arvo Pärt: Passio (ECM New Series 1370)


Arvo Pärt

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.

Thomas Tallis: The Lamentations Of Jeremiah (ECM New Series 1341)


Thomas Tallis
The Lamentations Of Jeremiah

David James countertenor
John Potter tenor
Rogers Covey-Crump tenor
Paul Hillier baritone
Michael George bass
Recorded September 1986, All Hallows Church, London
Engineer: Antony Howell

“The joy of our heart is ceased;
our dance is turned into mourning.”
Lamentations of Jeremiah the Prophet

I remember first hearing The Lamentations of Jeremiah of Thomas Tallis (1505-1585) as performed by the Deller Consort on an old Vanguard LP. Needless to say, my fifteen-year-old ears were awestruck by the ache of their eponymous emotion. In the hands (or should I say mouths?) of the Hilliard Ensemble the music of Tallis has become something else entirely. What the Deller recording displayed in brooding sensibility, the Hilliards have matched tenfold in the sheer expanse of their craft and in the ways in which that craft unfurls in a realm of earthly care. Composed during the latter half of the sixteenth century, the Lamentations are of the utmost spiritual refinement. Yet Tallis scholar Paul Doe asserts that the Lamentations “were not conceived as church music at all, but rather for private recreational singing by loyal Catholics.” Nevertheless, their masterful shifts in harmony and register make for a challenging “recreation” to say the least. Tallis has forged a delicate balance between each vocal line, and recreating this balance requires astute attention to many intricacies beyond the printed score. This the Hilliards pull off with dutiful concentration in a fluid and precise performance. The sheer sense of continuity and retrograde motion in these motets lends itself well to the shape and mood of their source texts. Each voice is clearly heard, rising intermittently above the others in slow waves in one of the most stunning examples of polyphony ever composed.

A languid tenor line spins the second setting into a gorgeous tapestry and intensifies the sonic textures. Here, Tallis constructs his voices much like cells: each one seems to subdivide until it develops into a living, breathing organism in its own right. Bodies individuate, shedding skin and emotional excess. In this pollinated space the Hilliards display an almost intuitive control of dynamics, and the way they ease into minor-to-major shifts at the ends of phrases is a perfect example of their ability to restrain at near silence, letting syllables breathe on their own without losing any harmonic tension. And perhaps this is exactly what these cells are: “pure” morphemes building into larger texts that become more recognizable with age. By the end they have successfully rendered the words of God’s subjects, who themselves interpret audible impulses of spiritual awareness into concrete blocks of meaning to be transcribed and notated by the faithful composer living through the religico-musical gesture alone. In this manner Tallis caresses the text, laying his hands upon the words with every note, and in doing so lays them also upon the listener. For this recording of the Lamentations the Hilliards have used a score tuned to modern pitch—which requires a deeper, more demanding sound palette—avoiding the pitfalls that transposed renditions often create when breaching into soprano territory. The countertenor is ideally suited to the haunting quality of the work, and in this regard David James paints a lower ceiling toward which the other voices may waft.

After these juggernauts come Salvator mundi and O sacrum convivium, two shorter motets that pave the way for the monumental Mass for Four Voices. In these pieces the alto line becomes more than a thread, but a thick, heavy cord that anchors the music down with its gravid faith. The music climbs and waits in the rafters to breathe in preparation for the Mass-ive descent to follow. Where the Lamentations are a tightly meshed macramé, in the Mass they resemble a lattice through which the wind blows freely. The voices are like water caught in a cove—sometimes they crash against the rocks; others they trickle between them, eddying in eroded pockets, splitting in infinitesimal directions. As such, they remain divinely ordered, flowing to the rhythm of some invisible articulation that can only be implied through the sounds of the sea, the trickle of a stream, the rush of a geyser, the tranquil violence of a waterfall.

This album represents a collection of music that has been “left behind,” having survived centuries of upheaval. In order to be heard and experienced, it must be transmitted from paper to voice, from materiality to intangibility, from the mundane to the sacred, only to be reinscribed onto a compact disc and sold as a commodity. Either way, the music outlives its creator. From the opening strains of the Lamentations to the harmonic gumbo of the closing Absterge Domine, we are treated to a veritable feast of sounds upon which the mind and body may gorge in abstract mastication. The recording is flawless—with just enough sheen from the highs and a touch of earthly muddiness in the lows—and couched in just the right amount of reverb. David James never fails to amaze throughout, while the two tenors (and Rogers Covey-Crump in particular) outdo themselves in the Mass. Like a freshly broken geode, the music they create surprises with its inner wealth. Its intense complexity and dissonant grinds make its moments of resolution all the more breathtaking. Those unsettling harmonies shake the listener down to the feet, underscoring the fallibility of the body. They also characterize the turbulent era in which Tallis lived, marking humanity at the center of music that is otherwise ecclesiastical. In listening to this disc one loses all sense of time and place, and in doing so begins to latch on to whatever individual voices are discernible from this beautifully ordered cacophony. The sheer variety of color shifts is beyond comprehension: it seems inconceivable that one could sit at a piano or organ and pluck these sounds from the ether. It is a music of dreams, of visions, and I daresay a music of divine inspiration. As such it lays itself bare as a supremely constructed object, though like any object it can be used to create magic. With all the formative elements nested in this world—earth, water, wind, air, fire—this music reminds us that, to that list, we must also add: light.

Arvo Pärt: Arbos (ECM New Series 1325)

Arvo Pärt

The Hilliard Ensemble
David James countertenor
Rogers Covey-Crump tenor
John Potter tenor
Gordon Jones baritone
Christopher Bowers-Broadbent organ
Gidon Kremer violin
Vladimir Mendelssohn viola
Thomas Demenga cello
Brass Ensemble Staatsorchester Stuttgart
Dennis Russell Davies conductor
Arbos, An den Wassern zu Babel, Pari Intervallo, De Profundis, and Summa recorded March/August 1986, Karlshöhe, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland (Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg)
Stabat MaterEs sang vor langen Jahren recorded January 1987 at St. John’s Church, London
Engineers: Peter Laenger and Andreas Neubronner (Südwest Tonstudio, Stuttgart)
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The music of Arvo Pärt, says Wilfred Mellers in his liner notes, is “concerned with the numinous”; as direct a statement as one can make about the sounds contained in this relatively neglected disc, overshadowed as it often is by the popularity of Te Deum and Tabula Rasa. For those new to Pärt, the wide selection represented in Arbos makes a solid primer. From the succinct to the majestic, the listener is treated to a carefully programmed process of transformation, culminating in one of the great masterpieces of modern choral literature.

The journey begins with the title piece, a terse blast of energy scored for brass and percussion. While cacophonous and chromatic, it is also perpetual and dark, providing the core for the “Dies irae” of Pärt’s later Miserere. On its own, it swirls into a self-sustaining galaxy that becomes more ordered with distance.

An den Wassern zu Babel saßen wir und weinten renders the well-known “By the rivers of Babylon” passage from Psalm 137 in a series of lilting triads, alternating between men’s and women’s voices. Here and elsewhere throughout the album one encounters the essence of the composer’s “tintinnabuli” style. Sustained tones from organ thread a line of subdued vocal beads, reaching ever higher, only to fall like kites whose strings are cut.

Pari Intervallo provides respite from denser surroundings. Comprised of gravid lead tones resting on a blanket of softer commentary, it is a funereal postlude, waiting and watching as the end draws near, promising not cessation but new life in its reverberant heart. It is a sublime meditation on the meaning of divinity and the divinity of meaning, a soul left unscripted by the wayside, where it can be captured neither on paper nor in sound. And yet, here we find an attempt to sketch its contours against our better judgment, against our feelings of inadequacy, against our assumptions of complexity in all things spiritual. In this piece we find the fibers that bound the garments of Christ on the cross, the creaking of knees of those who knelt at his feet. Pari Intervallo shimmers like heat distortion, moving with the force of a slow tide before receding into a still sea.

This is followed by Pärt’s stunning De Profundis, which also makes an appearance in the Miserere, if augmented by a broader choral palette. Different also here is the recording, which is less spacious (the bass drum, for one, is far more present). The voices are allowed to luxuriate in their own fallibility, in that beauty of impermanence that makes them human. In exposing its fragility so readily, the music becomes resilient. An organ provides the waters upon which this vessel of music floats, while a gong adds a dual note of ceremony. Whereas this piece brings us to the end in Miserere, as a standalone composition it seems to suggest a beginning.

Es sang vor langen Jahren sets a German poem (text and translation available here) by Clemens Brentano (1778-1842) for alto, violin, and viola. Alto Susan Bickley weaves a delicate song in this bare setting. Her tone is rich, as if residing somewhere in the back of her throat, heard before it is seen. The strings are like a lectern upon which the poetry rests, its pages bronzed with age.

Next is Summa in its original choral version. It is the quintessential Pärt composition: balanced, lush with triadic splendor, and concise. Along with Fratres in its many guises, Summa is a red thread in Pärt’s oeuvre and shines in this heartfelt performance.

This is followed by a curious reprise of Arbos that may divide listeners. Either way, it startles us from our reverie before pushing us into another.

At last we come to the highlight of an already fine disc: the 1985 Stabat Mater for 3 voices and string trio. The downward movement of its opening strings presents us with a unique metaphorical inversion. Where many a Stabat Mater works toward transcendence in its mourning, here we are brought from Heaven to Earth, even as we know that we must look from the latter to the former. The voices are the Trinity in a single open Ah, as if to spin their grief beyond the confines of language. Only then, after a brief comment from strings, does the text reveal itself. David James is the standout performer here, leading the way to a more rhythmic passage, echoed sul ponticello. Soprano Lynne Dawson enters like light through a window, bringing a maternal edge as she joins with James in duet, dotting the frosted glass of eternity with her warm fingertips. From Mount Zion they overlook the valleys—as green as they are brown—until everything that we have known is washed away in sound.

On the whole, Arbos goes down like a potion brewed in a vast melodic crucible. This is music that revels in its own exiguousness, for it is within those empty spaces that the greatest discoveries await us.

Kim Kashkashian/Robert Levin: Elegies (ECM New Series 1316)



Kim Kashkashian viola
Robert Levin piano
Recorded 1984 in New York
Engineers: Marc Aubort and Joanna Nickrenz
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Kim Kashkashian is easily one of the finest violists to ever place her bow on the instrument. She shines just as effervescently in the company of an orchestra as she does solo or here alongside Robert Levin, a trusty accompanist with whom she shares a palpable musical bond, and puts the range of her talents on full display in this fine chamber program of mostly rarities.

Benjamin Britten: Lachrymae: reflections on a song of Dowland (1950)
As the title suggests, Lachrymae is built around the merest skeleton of quotations. One doesn’t go into this piece expecting a recognizable motif. Rather, one wanders a dense exegesis of thematic material that splits the narrative into unspoken “reflections.” The only way in which these voices are renderable is through a music born in obscurity, like a film transitioning from blur to discernible image. This emergence from a darker history does little to foreshadow the drama that follows. An early pizzicato passage glitters with poignant resonance and the occasional touch of vibrato. At moments, Kashkashian and Levin fall into unison, only to scamper off again into the shadows. Kashkashian draws out a mosaic of double stops as Levin sprinkles her playing with suitable adornments. This leads to an eruption of emotion that seeks resolution through the sharpening of its own agitation. In its quieter passages, the music evokes a mouse running skittishly through hollow walls. At 14 minutes, Lachrymae is much to absorb in a single movement. Still, the fervor of the performance of this finely nuanced masterpiece is a revelation. In the hands of these competent musicians it is given its fullest possible breadth, so that the end leaves us wanting more.

Ralph Vaughan Williams: Romance
A rarely heard work that blossoms in a gorgeous, almost cathartic outpouring of emotion, Romance is neo-romanticism at its finest. One thinks perhaps of summer, of those youthful infatuations that seemed so utterly consuming, only to be replaced by those even stronger and unimaginably overpowering. Whereas Vaughan Williams’s orchestral arrangements often evoke the pastoral landscape in all its vastness, Romance skirts the edges like a wayfarer who, during an unseasonable cold snap, stumbles upon a half-buried skull: remnants of a forgotten hunt. As the sun rises, the animal’s spirit animates the dawn with promise and leaves us feeling light as air.

Carter: Elegy (1943)
If the Vaughan Williams is inhalation, then Carter’s attractive miniature is exhalation, a windy sigh across nostalgic waters. Each note lilts with careful equality. Even as the energy increases, the music remains constant in its message. This is a solitary world where only composers can open their eyes, and only listeners can close them.

Glazunov: Elegie (1892)
This is perhaps the most evenly structured statement on the program, a crystalline rivulet that knows exactly where it is headed. Kashkashian’s vibrato is particularly resplendent here and one can almost imagine the comportment of her playing, the arches of fingers and tilts of body that produce such sounds from this neglected instrument. Her tone is rich and inviting, if a touch regretful. Elegie is melodically succinct, rhythmically consistent, and symmetrical in approach, closing with a lovely phrase amid an ivory cluster.

Liszt: Romance Oubliée (1881)
Liszt’s dedication on the original manuscript reads: “To Herr Professor Herman Ritter, the inventor of the viola alta.” Ritter (1849-1926) was responsible for designing the instrument in question, a 5-string affair with a larger body for a higher range combined with deeper tone. And certainly, one can hear the expansive reach Liszt has wrought into this piece, weaving as it does like a needle and thread. Our musicians here work in studied synergy, building to a carillon-like crescendo. Listening to this piece is like body surfing: you just have to let its undulations take you where they will. The viola goes down to its lowest note, never venturing much higher as it washes ashore in a mournful end.

Kodály: Adagio (1905)
Composed just before Kodály would launch his monumental gathering of Hungarian folksongs, this quaint Adagio shines with a Brahmsian lacquer. The music is plaintive, even timid. It gives the piano a few asides in which to speak with minimal interjection. These segue into a gorgeous series of fast arpeggios over which the viola glides with an ice skater’s ease. This breaks down into a dirge that turns slowly toward a more uplifting song. The viola seems almost to weep; whether with joy or sadness is never clear.

Vieuxtemps: Elegie (1854)
This closing piece feels choral and almost militaristic, as if it were an anthem or war song meant to inspire troops down on hard times. The nostalgia with which it is painted attests to its arousing qualities as it marches through silent trenches in a flurry of confusion. This dark mood leaves the listener with much to ponder after the CD ends.

On the whole, this album is very warmly recorded. Levin pulls from the piano an almost gamelan-like quality, while Kashkashian luxuriates in the plurivocity afforded to her. She interacts with her instrument as would fingers upon a spine and her tonal depth often breaches cello territory. For anyone who is curious to discover what her playing is all about but who is wary of her penchant for the contemporary, this is an ideal place to start.