Of Tears, Of Privilege: Adam’s Lament at Lincoln Center

Adam’s Lament
Latvian Radio Choir
Sinfonietta Rīga
Tõnu Kaljuste conductor
Alice Tully Hall, Starr Theater
Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts
November 17, 2012
7:30pm

Of Tears…
It would be easy to paint the maturation of Arvo Pärt in the shape of a funnel. The Estonian composer was trained in the language of modernism but came to consolidate his musical foci into so-called “holy minimalism”—a catchall term that, while descriptive enough, ultimately defeats itself. In Pärt’s vision, minimalism seems better represented as pinpoints of light, stars that would be nothing without their limpid sky. Such mutual dependency is what makes the music sacred. We do better, then, to twin the funnel into an hourglass, endlessly turned by the hands and mouths of whoever bestows its truths to those fortunate enough to hear them. So we are when the Latvian Radio Choir and Sinfonietta Rīga, under the masterful guidance of Tõnu Kaljuste, present an all-Pärt program as part of Lincoln Center’s annual White Light Festival. Anticipation is high and met when the first strains of the Berliner Messe (1990-91, rev. 2002) touch our cortices. Composed on commission after Pärt’s emigration to Berlin, this setting of the Ordinary possesses a remarkable permeability. Around the standard texts and interjected Allelujas, strings sketch the thunder of conversion. Their pulse is elemental, hidden. Suspension awaits in Pärt’s setting of the Te Deum (1984-85, rev. 1992), the work that introduced me to its composer and which has since lived inside me. It develops motives like a book: knowledge that came before feeds into that which follows. A digitally sampled wind harp unfurls a constant and godly breath, piano dipping into the font of reason and stirring double basses to higher registers. Every crescendo equals stillness. We feel it in the soles of our feet, in the palms of our hands, in the stigmata of our collective memory.

Intermission brings about the surreal din of interpretation, snatches of recreated melody and soloists praised for the sake of proving knowledge.

Trisagion (1992, rev. 1994) begins the second half. Written in celebration of the 500th anniversary of a small Finnish parish, its title comes from the Greek for “Thrice Holy” and makes reference to Orthodox prayer and to the piece’s three core pitches. It is an overturned cup, spilling unspoken words. It is the beat of mortality. It is crystal, tarnished and restored. Also restored are the writings of ascetic Silouan of Athos (1866-1938), something of a touchstone of Pärt’s work and the red thread of Adam’s Lament (2009), the landscape of which resonates with suffering. Tears feed its soil as sunlight feeds the flora that grow from it. The mountains shiver, fauna likewise in their dreamless slumber. All the more appropriate that the musicians encore with Estonian Lullaby (2002, rev. 2006), bringing with it needed repose in an age so restless that only a child’s mind can contain its temper.

Of Privilege…
Nestled in the orchestra section of Alice Tully Hall, and in the most prayerful music I have experienced firsthand in years, I become uncomfortably aware of the allowances that brought us together. In the suffering of Silouan’s Adam lies the root of strife. How can Pärt not have this in mind when he has suffused his reading with the pain of the mortal body, its skeleton at once fractured and bonded by immeasurable sorrow? On this note, I must respectfully disagree with Zachary Woolfe, who in his November 19 New York Times review characterizes Pärt as having “defined a seductive vision of modern spiritual music, one that seeks to escape our world…rather than to embrace it.” I wonder if we are listening to the same music, for it is anything but escapist. Rather, it reminds me that I am experiencing an $80-per-ticket luxury even as innocents continue to die for nothing at the hands of self-interested regimes. Its surplus of beauty only serves to emphasize the rarity thereof. In spite of venue and context, the intimacy of the musicianship heightens my awareness of these realities. That their charge transcends the commercial trappings of the festival speaks to precisely the love that went into its creation, even if it does nothing to obscure the tightrope I walk in balancing appreciation with the hypocrisy of my inaction. I feel this acutely as, in the wake of a standing ovation, concertgoers debate the technical ups and downs of what they have just heard. With such effect still whirring inside us, what difference do a few glitches in the first half make?

In the toy chest of temptation, there is a kaleidoscope of shadow. Through it, one sees that the world has become sick with perlocution. Turning it in the hands only darkens its glory. It blinds us to those in need. Awareness, this music tells us, is not enough. One must also know the vitality of experience. Grace is not something to be won back through good deeds or mere contemplation, but felt when one no longer seeks it. When I seek Mr. Kaljuste instead and inform him that I will be writing this review, he humbly wishes me good luck. Yet I read a deeper truth into the statement. Without luck, I would not have been here. May I never forget that.

Let me know Thy touch,
that I may know of life.
Let me know Thy touchlessness,
that I may know the path.

Erkki-Sven Tüür: Crystallisatio (ECM New Series 1590)

Erkki-Sven Tüür
Crystallisatio

Tallinn Chamber Orchestra
Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir
Tõnu Kaljuste Conductor
Recorded 1994-1995 at Estonia Concert Hall, Tallinn
Engineer: Maido Maadik, Estonian Radio
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Estonian composer Erkki-Sven Tüür (b. 1959) admits that we are products of our environment. To be sure, he and his compatriots would seem to have carved out a distinctive niche in the terrain of classical music, chipped from the ice that locked their creative heritage under Soviet rule. In the same breath, however, he cautions us about adhering our identities to any particular place over another, lest we shun the illustrative details of our indeterminable experiences. In that sense, there is something to be said for music, which in Tüür’s case is as close to audio refraction as one can get: there is no distinguishing its inner and outer upheavals. Enter architectonics, an abiding process through which Tüür discloses the chemical compositions of his singular auditory experiences. As a onetime prog rock musician, he brings a “band” sensibility to his sound, in which one hears an undeniable cohesion.

Architectonics VI (1992) for flute, vibraphone, and strings descends from violins into a series of complex resolutions. It is mathematical in the truest sense, making a case for chaos as its primary expression. Convoluted outbursts from winds, neither spastic nor deliberate, are punctuated by strings, shining a light into this lively debate of inter-instrumental politics.

Passion (1993) for string orchestra is a rare achievement. Its development recalls Henryk Górecki’s Third Symphony, working its way from ground level into the stratosphere of our emotional purview. Its shifts from minor to major keys glisten in a dew-drenched field, accepting the sun’s slow rise. There is, in this piece, as much lateral movement as vertical. Each stage is both a revival of the past and a rehearsal of the future. As the upper strings tighten their grip on reality, the cellos resound with a note for the ages, not unlike a certain tenor’s proclamatory crest in Arvo Pärt’s Magnificat, if relatively foreshortened.

Illusion (1993) for string orchestra dances with every sinew of its bowed body. Though brimming with dynamic suppleness, it turns every statement into a new paragraph. As double basses mark staccato points of articulation, violins reassert their seemingly innate desire to lead. Tõnu Kaljuste’s immaculate direction brings phenomenal dynamic control to bear as the piece builds into an ecstatic reinstatement, an aesthetic lock that grows progressively quieter until the final exultation.

Crystallisatio (1995) for 3 flutes, glockenspiel, strings, and live electronics ushers us into a congregation of drowsy banshees, draping themselves in the canopy of a darkened forest. Electronically processed flutes echo like spirits recast in the image of their own reflection. The cellos are given a mournful urgency, through which they enact a promise of daylight. The glockenspiel’s doublings tickle our very spirits with their arousing pinpoints. The frenzy mounts as the processing reveals its illusions more explicitly. We end on an overblown flute and a single glockenspiel note—a drop in the cosmic pond.

Requiem (1994) for soprano, tenor, chorus, triangle, piano, and strings is the masterpiece of this program, and beyond reason enough to buy this album. Written for friend and conductor Peeter Lillje, it gives us the clearest portrait of an artist working in real time. A struck triangle opens the proceedings, from which baritones spin the Introit. Strings operate sympathetically as the cellos double the tenor line, and the violins skip along their own skyward paths. A tenor introduces the Kyrie eleison as the violins continue their improvisatory pirouettes. Vocal constituents volley back and forth, while at their center a piano comes crashing down in a rupture of spiritual information. Altos and sopranos emerge from the rubble as wavering sirens. They keen and shout in Orff-like exuberance before cracking open a breathtaking Rex tremendae in tutti. A lithe soprano provides reflection in the Recordare. A violin wanders abstractly in timid, almost insectile, commentary. All the while, choral forces are gathering themselves toward a somber end that reenacts the cycle’s beginnings.

Violins play a key role throughout, scratching like an animal searching for something buried but long decayed, a kernel of faith long sprouted into the tree under which it claws in vain. The triangle that opens and closes the Requiem is proof positive that the most direct access to enlightenment isn’t always the grandest, but that sometimes the keyhole rupture of the blinking eye, and the single glint of light upon the tear that falls from it, are sufficient to show the way. The piano, too, plays a commensurate role, a voice of reason at center stage.

This is a transportive album—absolutely so—and one that I will always champion. Like the frozen surface of the jacket photo, it seems at first glance a field of stars, forever locked at the height of brightness. Although I do not feel that ECM’s subsequent Tüür releases have quite attained the magical realism of this one, anyone who shares an enthusiasm for Crystallisatio would do well to place the others alongside it. Tüür’s resolutions are always revolutions in that they, through the promise of completion, only bring forth further fragments for consideration. Rather than trying to achieve balance through this process, Tüür seems to want to make a meta-statement regarding the nature of his compositional process, which is constituted by a need for discourse and reevaluation. Like the tintinnabulations of Arvo Pärt, his atmospheres lay out for us the very topography of a nameless musical environment. Every turn brings about a new needle of contention by which to sew our physiological threads. This is music that makes no promises, yet in doing so fulfills countless numbers of them. As one of ECM’s most groundbreaking releases, second perhaps only to Giya Kancheli’s Exil, this is a must-have for the New Series enthusiast.

Alfred Schnittke: Psalms of Repentance (ECM New Series 1583)

Alfred Schnittke
Psalms of Repentance

Swedish Radio Choir
Tõnu Kaljuste conductor
Recorded at Högalidskyrkan, Stockholm, Sweden by P2 Swedish Broadcasting Corporation in February 1996
Engineer: Ian Cederholm
Produced by Manfred Eicher

There is a coastal town in Japan, documented by video and performance artist Yamashiro Chikako, where a neglected gate runs off the land and into the sea (not unlike the cover for First Avenue). As the camera tracks its crooked slats and sagging wire, we watch it being swallowed by the waters, marking a border that no longer has any physical meaning. Alfred Schnittke’s Psalms of Repentance are very much like that indefinable territory: the border is there, and at one time provided utilitarian purpose, but has now transcended itself into the realm of the abstract, where it survives only in memory. Because repentance also requires a conception of time and the emotional projections that bind us to its passage, charting one’s hardships in the printed score becomes an exercise in faith, whereby divinity is converted into audible form.

These settings of fifteenth-century poetry were composed to mark the millennial anniversary of Russia’s Christianization. While not known for a cappella choral music, Schnittke unravels himself in these pieces like no other. Each numbered section is its own flower in a plot that only expands with each listen, pollinating the life (and death) of its totality. The heartfelt tenor solo in II, for example, strips us to our core with its solemn insistence, marking the earth like farmland: regular scars gouged into the skin of the earth, from which arise the flora of regret. Dark swaths of orthodox atmosphere and glorious resolutions make IV one of the album’s profoundest sections, and give us the clearest picture of their composer’s distresses and affirmations alike. Women’s voices often gather in dissonant streams of commentary, such as can be heard in VI, while VIII floats from transparency to opacity. There is a quality to these shifts and to this music that can only be described in simile. Like a bolt of light from between the clouds, it is but a blink of cosmic eyes that stills the heart because one cannot think of anything else upon witnessing it. The final Psalm is a singular implosion to behold, its subdued insights melting into a sinful world, a river running through the gorges of a landscape chiseled in the likeness of history.

The instrumentally minded arrangements are sensitive to their texts, while also drawing out inner relationships with such weight that one remains immobile. The album’s recording level is low, thereby necessitating a quiet space for listening, and heightening its more declamatory moments. Conductor Tõnu Kaljuste lends his leading hands to the Swedish Radio Choir, whose earthen sound drips with energy. This is contemplative music at its finest from a composer who continues to enchant, now and forever.

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.