Tuesday 2 September 2014

Essential Listening - Arvo Part

Arvo Part - Polyphony  Layton
Arvo Part Berliner Messe, The Beatitudes, Annum per Annum, Magnificat, 7 Magnificat Antiphons, De Profundis; Polyphony, Stephen Layton; Hyperion Helios
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Aug 28 2014
Star rating: 5.0

Superb performances of some of Arvo Part's finest and best known sacred music.

This 1998 disc is, I think, essential listening for anyone who wants to explore Arvo Part's music, and the recording would sit proudly on the shelves of any Part enthusiast. The disc contains an attractive and essential selection of Part's sacred music with Berliner Messe (in the version for choir and organ), The Beatitudes, Magnificat, Sieben Magnificat-Antiphonen as well as Annum per annum for organ. The works date from the period 1980 to 1991 and encapsulate much that is typical of Part's style. Here they are sung by Polyphony conducted by Stephen Layton, with Andrew Lucas (organ). The disc has been re-issued on the Hyperion Helios label.

Part's vocal music, particularly that for unaccompanied choir, or choir and organ, can be deceptively simple. But it has a stripped back quality which gives the singers no room to manoeuvre. Just listen to the opening movement from Sieben Magnificat-Antiphonen, O Weisheit. Here the soprano part is discontinuous, simply starting and stopping, and with very little variation in the note. What could be simpler, but the singers must sing high and quiet, and the line must have a sense of continuity as if, in the silent bars, they were still singing but we can't hear them. This means that the notes must start without any sort of accent or bump. It all starts to get very tricky, and each piece on this disc has its own collection of problems. Many require superb tuning, as Part places notes together based on his tintinabuli technique where he accompanies a plainchant-like melody with various notes/chords from a triad chord.

Arvo Pärt in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, 2008
Arvo Pärt in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, 2008
The beauty of the performances on this disc from Stephen Layton and Polyphony is that they fulfil all the above requirements, and manage to be musical and expressive. There is a purity and clarity of sound to much of what they sing here, and often the performances are deceptive. In the Magnificat Part sets the texts syllabically and relies on contrast between soli and tutti. The result could, in the wrong hands, chug awfully. But here Layton and his choir make the piece profoundly expressive.

The Magnificat is complemented by the Magnificat Antiphons which set the great O Anthems (antiphons to the Magnificat at Vespers on the seven days running up to Christmas). These are all relatively short, but each has its own challenge (I know, I have sung them twice). You know that the singers in Polyphony have worked extremely hard to achieve the sound they do, but they make it all seem naturally expressive without the feeling of struggle. There is also a nice low key sense to the performances. That is not to say that they are not dramatic, Layton seriously brings out the dramatic contrasts, but the performances entirely lack the look-at-me-aren't-we-clever sort of feeling that can mar this type of disc.

The disc opens with Part's Berliner Messe which Part wrote originally for soloists and organ, he then created the version for choir and organ that is used here, finally producing a version for choir and strings. It sets the ordinary of the mass, plus two Alleluia movements and the hymn Veni Sancte Spiritus. The work is varied, ranging from the slow spareness of the Kyrie, through the vigour of the Gloria to the austerity of the Agnus Dei.

There is one non-choral work on the disc, Part's Annum per Annum. Written in 1980 it consists of an introduction and coda surrounding five variations each based on the Ordinary of the Mass. Here it receives a superbly atmospheric performance from Andrew Lucas on the organ of St. Paul's Cathedral (with the building's acoustic making a fine contribution too!).

The choral works on the disc are completed with his early (1980) De Profundis and The Beatitudes. This latter work is the quintessential Part sound, a deceptive slow build from hushed to dramatic with a simple syllabic setting where the melody is surrounded by clusters of notes. And the performance from Layton and his forces is near perfection. Listen and marvel, at their skill and at that of Arvo Part.

Arvo Part (born 1935) - Berliner Messe (1990) [25.11]
Arvo Part (born 1935) - The Beatitudes (1990) [7.01]
Arvo Part (born 1935) - Annum per Annum (1980) [11.58]
Arvo Part (born 1935) - Magnificat (1989) [7.04]
Arvo Part (born 1935) - Sieben Magnificat Antiphonen (1988, rev. 1991) [15.01]
Arvo Part (born 1935) - De profundis (1980) [7.19]
Andrew Lucas (organ)
Stephen Layton (conductor)
Recorded Romsey Abbey, Hampshire,10-11 January 1997, st Paul's Cathedral, 6 January 1998.
Elsewhere on this blog:

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