Arvo Pärt: Miserere (ECM New Series 1430)

Arvo Pärt
Miserere

The Hilliard Ensemble
David James countertenor
Rogers Covey-Crump tenor
John Potter tenor
Gordon Jones baritone
Paul Hillier director
Orchester der Beethovenhalle Bonn
Western Wind Chamber Choir
Dennis Russell Davies conductor
Sarah Leonard soprano
Christopher Bowers-Broadbent organ
Pierre Favre percussion
Recorded September 1990, St. Jude-on-the-Hill, London (Miserere, Sarah Was Ninety Years Old)
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Recorded December 1990 at Beethovenhalle, Bonn (Festina Lente)
Engineers: Peter Laenger and Andreas Neubronner
Produced by Manfred Eicher

For reasons perhaps too numerous to list here in full, Arvo Pärt’s Miserere remains my most cherished of the Estonian composer’s ever-growing book of masterworks. Suffice it to say that its magic lies in its stillness. For such an expansive piece—scored as it is for choir, soloists, organ, and ensemble—it is remarkably introspective. Its opening invocation of Psalm 51 fleshes out a corpus of spoken language made melody. A statement from the clarinet follows every word, not so much commentative as dialogic. Once harmony is introduced in the second vocal line, the pauses become even more gravid and rich in spatial detail. The soloists gather up all remaining threads, persevering through mounting tensions with the blunt instrument that is the interjected “Dies irae.” This is more than just a thunderous meditation. It is a wringing-out of the heavens, the earth a mouth gaping to catch all that drips down. Voices burst like supernovas around thunderous timpani, crashing into the oceans until only a tubular bell is left to caress the newly razed soil. The heartfelt baritone of Gordon Jones describes the ruins with mellifluous sensitivity. A wind section breathes through every pause like a ghostly antiphon and provides a dark interlude. As the soloists arise en masse, David James flares with his resplendent countertenor colors, whereas the deep intonation of soprano Sarah Leonard marvels amid the fumes of destruction. Another stunning interlude, this time introduced by Christopher Bowers-Broadbent on organ, coaxes the winds into more independent recitations, accentuated by a crystalline tambourine and triangle. We arrive to an a cappella passage that is transfiguration incarnate, each soloist pawing the air like a sleeping lion. The winds slog through the valleys, heavy sins in tow, while voices linger in the firmament. Leonard is unmatched in her ability to put her entire being into a high note, and the moment one finds at the 30:13 mark is perhaps her finest example. This touches off one of the most breathtaking lifts ever set to music, as all the voices scale a ladder of chaos into a world of silent order. Miserere is all about the “in between,” the lesson of interrupted thought, and our fearful awe over the mystery of creation.

Festina Lente (1988) for orchestra and harp is dedicated to Manfred Eicher. The title means “make haste slowly” and acknowledges the importance of flux in any creative endeavor. Like Eicher’s own aesthetic path, it is a resonant spiral that goes both downward and upward.

Awe is the operative concept in Sarah Was Ninety Years Old (1977/90). Drums cycle through an arithmetic exploration of high and low beats, cradling wordless passages from tenors Rogers Covey-Crump and John Potter. This process repeats until the organ makes its humble entrance, even as Leonard pushes her voice to dizzying heights. One would think such a piece might escape today’s trigger-happy musical culture, but I have recently encountered the drums from Sarah, as effective as they are surprising, being sampled by German electronic artist HECQ in his track “Aback,” off the wonderful album Night Falls.

This disc has been with me for nearly half my life. The Miserere in particular drew me into a love of singing. As a teenager I used to spend hours singing along alternately with the baritone and alto lines until the booklet yellowed and nearly fell apart from excessive handling (I even went so far as to purchase a backup, just so I would have a pristine copy on my shelf). After so much physiological engagement with its textual and aural shapes, it has become an integral part of my person. Listening reminds me that with each new step I take on the path to independence, I grow closer to who I have always been: a human soul sustained by all others in a world where time is infinitely malleable, and the only thing that’s real is my surrender to the moment.

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8 thoughts on “Arvo Pärt: Miserere (ECM New Series 1430)

  1. Miserere is one of my favorite works, but it seems few have written about it from what I can find. You captured the piece well, and put some of the feelings it conjures into poetic words. Thank you.

    One of my great hopes is to see Miserere performed by an ensemble live. Think I have a chance?

      1. As recent as 2010! That’s encouraging, good finds. I have a Google Alert set for it now and I’ve emailed the Hilliard Ensemble to inquire about the possibility of future performances. I’ll comment here if I find out anything.

      1. I have seen the piece live last Saterday the 10th of January in Amsterdam and have put the performance recorded by the radio station with some pictures of the concert at YouTube

  2. Your closing statement on the review resonated so much with me. It’s a life-altering piece of music, and I’ve never played it to anybody who doesn’t feel an enormous swell of emotion, even on the first listen.

    Thank you for this wonderful and insightful review.

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