Arvo Pärt: Te Deum (ECM New Series 1505)

Arvo Pärt
Te Deum

Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir
Tallinn Chamber Orchestra
Tõnu Kaljuste conductor
Recorded January 1993 at Lohjan Kirkko, Finland
Engineers: Peter Laenger and Andreas Neubronner
Produced by Manfred Eicher

I too repented deeply and sorrowed much that I had grieved God,
And that peace and love were lost on earth because of my sin.
My tears ran down my face.
My breast was wet with my tears, and the earth under my feet;
And the desert heard the sound of my moaning.
–Staretz Silouan

It was a balmy evening on the 30th of October, 1995, as I and a throng of eager listeners filed into the Trinity College Chapel in Hartford, Connecticut. On the program: the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra. It is an experience not even a lobotomy could erase from my memory. Bathed in the Chapel’s cascading acoustics, the musicians sounded nothing short of revelatory. Being in their presence after only recently having discovered the music of Arvo Pärt allowed me to appreciate at an even more visceral level the utter dedication represented by their combined forces. Whatever was in the air was beyond magic. The stillness of our hearts was surely palpable. That these brilliant singers and instrumentalists had traveled so far, carrying with them a most glorious music and message, was a miracle to me. I doubt that a single soul in that space felt anything less than all-consuming gratitude for the opportunity afforded to them.

Pärt’s Te Deum was the centerpiece of a program that also included works by Veljo Tormis, Einojuhani Rautavaara, J. S. Bach, and more from Pärt himself. While one can hardly compare the live experience to the recorded one, by no means is this album a lesser organism. The piece’s emergence hinges on a prerecorded wind harp, tuned to notes D and A, providing a constant drone that flirts with our awareness. (During the concert, I noted a few in the audience craning their necks to see where the sound was coming from, leading me to believe they were hearing it for the first time. I can only imagine what it must have been like to have one’s inaugural experience of the Te Deum in such a context, and I like to think it only added to the mystery of it all, as if hallucinating an indefinable voice from the very rock beneath their feet.) After the main “theme” is laid out, the strings climb to life from low to high registers, almost like a death throe in reverse—a resurrection, if you will. As Pärt himself explains, he felt it necessary to “draw this music gently out of silence and emptiness.” And so do we encounter hushed moments that are never entirely removed from their backdrop. To these subtle orchestral energies, Pärt adds three choirs and a prepared piano. The non-vocal instruments are like the gospel writer—or, in Pärt’s case, the composer—weaving new patterns from tattered post-Messianic threads. Text and music work in tandem, at times uniting in exultant crescendos (what theologian Frank Church Brown calls “radical transcendence”), while at others circling the central line of tintinnabular consciousness like a prophet’s quill. The piece ends with reiterations of “Sanctus” in triplicate over a sustained chord on strings, underscoring the holiness of the musical act therein. I was in tears by the end of the 1995 performance, so moved was I by the intensity of the living, breathing entity that sang through every fiber of my physical and psycho-spiritual being. I found myself floating, holding on to my earthly existence by the thinnest of tethers. At the same time, I could not deny my own gravidity, looking deep as I was into the self and finding solace in the delicate balance that is mortality. Anything that I had ever lost in life had been either regained or forgotten at that moment in favor of less tangible possessions. Neither could I help but be overwhelmed by the fact that, after chancing upon this music through the airwaves, I should be able to witness it physically, experiencing its sheer volume in the blessing of real time. The Te Deum is a statement on statement, a quantification of the utterance via the merest particle of its articulation. In reading so humbly into his sources, Pärt has rendered inspiration palatable through his own sense of hymnal adoration. One is hard-pressed to reconstruct the Te Deum for those who have yet to peer through its many windows. And though no review, however voluminous, does it a modicum of justice, I can only hope these words at least begin to express its potential effect.

Next on the album is Silouans Song, an especially moving piece for string orchestra and another I had the great fortune of hearing during the same concert. The piece is dedicated to Archimandrite Sophrony, a disciple of Staretz Silouan (1866-1938), who led a monastic life in the Russian Monastery of St. Panteleimon on Mount Athos starting in 1892. Staretz is a title given to a monk “whose God-given wisdom and insight enable him to serve as a spiritual guide for others.” And what better way to express such a life than through his musical equivalent? The melodies are drawn directly from Silouan’s psalmnodic writings, and their basis in the written word engenders a sacred sort of engagement with the listener. As one of Pärt’s most unflinching statements of faith, Silouans Song rings true as a profession of the spiritual life.

And then there is the Magnificat, an achievement that is beyond words precisely because words are its alpha and omega. The depth of Pärt’s pacing and his attention to breath and pause all forge a most distinct path toward a consciousness in which one need no longer carry the burden of self-aggrandizement. There is a stunning climax in which the tenor rises above the rest at the end of the line “Suscepit Israel puerum suum” (He hath received Israel his servant). During the choir’s performance of this piece, Kaljuste lifted his trembling hand to draw that very note forth with even greater urgency. It is an image I always carry with me when listening to it.

Closing out this vibrant album is the Berliner Messe, a profound statement of Pärt’s liturgical persuasion. Originally for SATB soloists and organ, and later (as recorded here) for mixed chorus and strings, it interpolates into the standard mass text two stunning Alleluias and a Veni Sancte Spiritus, the latter being a Pentacostal text that welcomes the redeeming qualities of the Holy Spirit. The axial Credo molds a shape not unlike his earlier Summa, while the final Agnus Dei withers like a flower in slow motion into static resolution.

Te Deum stands as one of ECM’s most enduring testaments to the powerful symbiosis between sound and silence. With this recording, label and composer transformed the aural landscape of this one faithful listener. It is unique in my life for so many reasons, from the banal (it is the only ECM recording I ever owned first on cassette) to the sacred (its sounds reformed my worldview in a way no other music has). This is a recording to change lives and one that will forever stand the test of time, for it is time incarnate.

Veljo Tormis: Forgotten Peoples (ECM New Series 1459/60)

Veljo Tormis
Forgotten Peoples

Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir
Tõnu Kaljuste conductor
Recorded February 1990, Tapiola Church, Finland
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Paul Hillier

“I do not use folk song, it is folk song that uses me.”
–Veljo Tormis

During the final years of the Soviet occupation in the Baltic states, Estonia took charge in a characteristic way by staging a series of peaceful demonstrations in demand of sovereignty. These came to be known as the Singing Revolution. Two high points of this resistance revolved around the annual Song of Estonia festival, held in the capital city of Tallinn. On 11 September 1988, 300,000 citizens gathered in solidarity and sang old songs until sunrise, uncaring of the reproach such a blazon act might incur. During the same festival the following year, and with a similarly sized crowd surrounded by armed Soviet troops, voices broke out into the Estonian national anthem, still forbidden under the current communist regime. Throughout this censorious period, composer Veljo Tormis found his politics nourished by song, as evidenced in the ban of his more passivist compositions. Yet despite this censure, if not because of it, Tormis’s music only gained popularity. At the heart of his compositional output, containing some 500 choral works, is the regilaul, a song form stemming from the oral traditions of the Balto-Finnic peoples. Regilaulud are distinguished by their call-and-response structure, but add a unique twist: a soloist’s line is taken up at the last word by the chorus, while the chorus’ last line is subsequently taken up by the soloist, thus creating a musical “chain” to which any number of dynamic elements may be linked.

The music of Tormis, who retired from composing in 2000, nevertheless continues to thrive in worldwide performances and recordings such as the one under review here. One unfortunate side effect of this increasing popularity is the way in which the Estonian composer has become romanticized. Many reviewers—which, to be fair, often have only scant liner notes to work from—paint a rather Bartókian image of Tormis: the heroic anthropologist trekking through outlying villages in order to rescue the final vestiges of their oral culture by preserving them in a more widely accessible form. Although Tormis did some minimal fieldwork, and even then only as compiler, he relied heavily on the extensive and no less significant collections of Finnish and Estonian language institutes and university archives. Nevertheless, Tormis holds to his source material as something to be nurtured. As the famous quote above implies, he sees himself as a mediator and advocates a syncretic approach, which takes into account not only the song’s “original” function, but also its new setting and (re)presentation.

Unustatud rahvad (Forgotten Peoples), written between 1970-89, is Tormis’s magnum opus: a collection of 51 songs, each one more immersive than the last, divided into six cycles representing the Livonians, Votians, Izhorians, Ingrian Finns, Vepsians, and Karelians. The first of these, Liivlaste pärandus (Livonian Heritage) is also the earliest, and shows a composer searching for his own voice in the voices of others. Its melodic structures comprise a deft blend of chromatism, orthodox chant, and sustained drones, across which monophonic lines are drawn with careful textual attention. Herding calls, an amusing satire of patrilineal inheritence, and one content little mouse all play equal roles in this colorful set. The seven pieces that make up the Vadja pulmalaulud (Votic Wedding Songs) bristle with more overt regilaul qualities. Their cyclical structure seems to underscore the matrimony at their center. Every aspect of the celebration falls under the music’s watchful eye: from the “Arrival of the Wedding Guests,” through the obligatory “Mockery Singing” and dowry distribution, to the charming “Praising the Cook,” which reminds us even in the most heightened moments of frivolity to acknowledge those whose hard work have made that frivolity possible. In these songs, one can almost smell the provisions, feel the textures of the fibers being worn, feast upon the gentle lay of the landscape and the solid colors of the architecture, which linger in the senses long after the final decrescendo. What follows is the longest and most dramatic cycle. Isuri eepos (Izhorian Epic) begins with a creation myth and launches into a retrospective of Izhorian principles, divine musings, and customs. Women’s voices dominate here, both in the singing and in the narration, adding an emphatic power matched nowhere else in the entire collection. Ingerimaa õhtud (Ingrian Evenings) is more domestic in both feeling and content, focusing as it does on the mundane pleasures of village life. A bare sense of rhythm and unwavering inner energy lend these songs a rustic flavor that speaks directly to the heart. Vepsa rajad (Vepsian Paths) consists of fifteen children’s miniatures. The songs exist only in fragments, but their brevity only underscores their joyful evocativeness. Highlights include the delightful “Pussy-cat,” which purrs and meows just as one might hope, and the melodic but bittersweet “Forced to Get Married,” with its gorgeous glissandi from the sopranos and motherly alto responses. Finally, Karjala saatus (Karelian Destiny) presents us with five examples of Tormis’s most profoundly developed choral sensibilities, culminating in the masterful “Lullaby,” with its promises of comfort and salvation.

This is a culturally and musically important collection sung by one of the world’s finest vocal collectives. The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir seems to have a limitless supply of breath. Yet while this music certainly does draw in faraway listeners, it also casts a powerful cultural message into a world that had shunned it for so long. This is part of what makes Forgotten Peoples so potent. By the same token, Tormis himself has said that his “promotional” approach to folksong is just as instructive to his own people as it is to the global market, which may or may not see his music as little more than a niche to be filled. He is not advocating a revival, nor is he looking to return to way of life forever lost. Rather, he is using his music as a way of claiming these songs for his own, in the hopes that others will feel them as theirs. Either way, the astoundingly committed performances and ECM’s well-balanced recording—itself significant for having been produced before Estonia regained its independence—ensure these peoples will be anything but forgotten.

For the most balanced perspective on Tormis available in English, I cannot recommend highly enough Mimi S. Daitz’s insightful book Ancient Song Recovered: The Life and Music of Veljo Tormis, from which some of the information for this review was gathered.