Arvo Pärt: Litany (ECM New Series 1592)

 

Litany

Arvo Pärt
Litany

The Hilliard Ensemble
David James countertenor
Rogers Covey-Crump tenor
John Potter tenor
Gordon Jones baritone
Tallinn Chamber Orchestra
Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir
Tõnu Kaljuste conductor
Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra
Saulius Sondeckis conductor
Recorded September 1995, Niguliste Church, Tallinn
Engineer: Teije van Geest

Drawing from the writings of St. John Chrysostum (c. 349-407), whose prayers for daily hours comprise the font from which Arvo Pärt anoints this musical setting, the Estonian composer spins a soft thread of light with limited information. Like the equally visceral settings of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff before him, Pärt’s is utterly moving and uniquely colored by the sensitivity of his instrumental writing, such as listeners have encountered in his Miserere and Passio. The voices of Litany seem to arise out of their orchestral surroundings as if they have been hiding within it and are only now choosing to reveal themselves. Such is the effect of the Hilliard Ensemble’s unity throughout. Tubular bells and horns make their presence known. Subtle clues from orchestra and choir announce the hours as women’s voices pour their glorious shine like starlight from an alabaster jar. Philip Glassean punctuations of winds enhance the spell. The volume builds, only to subside, returning to the silence of a head bowed in contemplation. Under the guidance of Tõnu Kaljuste, the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra and Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, along with the Hilliard Ensemble, have given us a most selfless reading of this masterful composition.

Following this are two pieces performed by the Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra at the baton of Saulius Sondeckis, under whose direction the world at large was first introduced to the music of Arvo Pärt through ECM’s Tabula Rasa. Originally conceived as a string quartet, Psalom emerges here as one of the composer’s most heartrending pieces for strings, second perhaps only to Silouans Song. Each phrase is lifted before it fades, blurring “vocal” lines like breath in winter air. Trisagion also takes its inspiration from St. John Chrysostum. Like a landmass over time, it falls into the inevitability of erosion, so that only the abstract remains untouched by the limits of tangibility. It ends on a repeated proclamation that would be overbearing in its insistence, if not for its decline in volume and number, mathematically reduced to zero.

Pacing is absolutely essential to the mood and architecture of the entire album, and this the musicians accomplish with uncanny immediacy. One of the more powerful post-Te Deum releases, Litany is sung and performed with unparalleled dedication. Countertenor David James is the perfect foil for Pärt’s anti-dualism, and emerges as the voice of reason in an unreasonable era.

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