Friday 17 April 2020

Completely magical: music by Arvo Pärt, Peteris Vasks, James MacMillan on this new disc from Graham Ross and the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge

Arvo Pärt Stabat Mater, Peteris Vasks Plainscapes, James MacMillan Miserere; choir of Clare College, Cambridge, Dmitri Ensemble, Graham Ross; Harmonia Mundi
Arvo Pärt Stabat Mater, Peteris Vasks Plainscapes, James MacMillan Miserere; choir of Clare College, Cambridge, Dmitri Ensemble, Graham Ross; Harmonia Mundi
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 17 April 2020 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
Five works by Arvo Pärt, culminating in the large-scale Stabat Mater setting, alongside works by his younger contemporaries in sophisticated and completely magical performances from the young college choir

Arvo Pärt's post-1968 output has created some of the most distinctive, most influential and most striking music of the 20th century. Pärt's music has turned its back on the complexity espoused by post-1950s modernism, and found a different type of harmonic intensity.

On this new disc from Harmonia Mundi, Graham Ross and the choir of Clare College, Cambridge present four of Arvo Pärt's unaccompanied choral works and then finish with Pärt's Stabat Mater in the version for choir and strings (for which they are joined by the Dmitri Ensemble). Alongside the Pärt are a pair of more recent works which have links to Pärt's output, Peteris Vasks' Plainscapes for mixed choir, violin (Jamie Campbell) and cello (Oliver Coates), and James MacMillan's Miserere.

They start with Pärt's 2004 piece, Da pacem, Domine, which was commissioned by Jordi Savall and written just after the Madrid bombings in March 2004. It is a short, concentrated work and Pärt's rather spare score, for just four voices written for with restraint so that not all four come together and the melodic line is split as a hocket, is given here with quiet intensity by Ross and the choir.

We are discovering that there are many ways of performing Pärt's music. The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, which is well known for its many performances, sings it with a relatively large group and a thrillingly focussed vibrancy, whereas Peter Phillips and the Tallis Scholars have been performing the pieces one voice to a part.

Here Graham Ross and the choir of Clare College use a choir of around 30 young voices, recorded at some distance away so that we get the full effect of the clear young voices in the acoustic. The results are striking and do not make the mistake of 'merely' making Pärt's music aetherial, here there is beautiful transparency but also strength. And, of course, wonderful accuracy; something which is essential in any performance of Pärt's music.

The Woman with the Alabaster Box dates from 1997 and sets text from St Matthew's Gospel. It was written for the 350th anniversary of the Karlstad Diocese in Sweden. It sets the text in English (was it first performed like that I wonder), but here Ross and his singers seem more concerned with Pärt's sophisticated manipulation of textures (the music develops significantly when directly quoting Jesus, and then contracts when returning to narration), than with projecting the text. If you are happy to read the words from the booklet, then this is a lovely performance.

The Latvian composer Peteris Vasks was born some eleven years after Pärt, and his music has been as much influenced by composers such as Lutoslawski and Penderecki as by Pärt, along with Latvian folk music. But there is something of Pärt's boiling down of complexity and ability to develop music which retains a simplicity whilst expressing complex ideas. His Plainscapes of 2002 crops up in a variety of formats. Here we have the original version which is for violin (Jamie Campbell), cello (Oliver Coates) and wordless choir, and it is a work where you can hear Vasks manipulating ideas inspired by Pärt's tintinnabuli style to create his own distinctive textures. Conductor Graham Ross clearly has a very fine ear for textures, as he balances his forces wonderfully here, and the results are quiet, concentrated and intense, and very evocative.

Pärt's Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis were not strictly written as a pair, but work very well together. The Magnificat dates from 1989 and Pärt's approach ignores the drama of the text and concentrates on the more meditative aspects, making more prayer than canticle. Again, he manipulates texture in a sophisticated and expressive way, varying the number of lines from two to six, and keeping a sort of constant drone running through. The advantage of a performance like this is that you forget the mechanics of Pärt's writing, and concentrate on the quietly intense musicality of the piece.

The Nunc Dimittis followed in 2001, and though it starts in a similarly quietly concentrated manner, by the time the text reaches the 'lumen ad revelationem' Pärt allows the music to reach genuine radiance. Here, unlike the Magnificat he adds the doxology too.

James MacMillan's Miserere was written in 2009 for Harry Christophers and The Sixteen, setting the Psalm 51 text which has been used by many composers, including famously Allegri. As with much of his choral writing, MacMillan draws on his Scottish background, notably Gaelic psalm singing and other Scots psalmody to create melodic material with a very particular, yet profoundly satisfying background. MacMillan is more consciously complex than Pärt, there are distinctly knotty and tough passages, though the music is well within the capabilities of good amateur choirs.

For all the melodic beauty of the material, and complexity of some of the writing, Ross and his singers keep the performance tightly focused and beautifully poised. The opening, for four-part male chorus, is completely magical and beautifully echoed by the fine-grained women's chorus following. Again, there is a sophisticated manipulation of texture, with MacMillan delineating sections by changing the line-up, so that the work moves between richly chunky eight-part harmony to spare vocal lines. Throughout, Ross and his young singers concentrate on the intensity of the emotional journey, often fining the sound down to something rather magical.

For the final work on the disc Graham Ross and the choir are joined by the strings of the Dmitri Ensemble for Pärt's Stabat Mater. This was originally written in 1985 to a commission from the Alban Berg Foundation, for soprano, alto and tenor solo and string trio (violin, viola, cello). In 2008, Pärt re-scored it for three-part choir (SAT) and string orchestra and it is this version that is performed here. Pärt's original concept for just six performs gives the music an austerity which he preserves in this version, perhaps because he is writing for three-part chorus. As with the Magnificat, he ignores the potential for dramatic presentation in the text and concentrates on a unified, meditative approach. Yet he divides the text into sections and uses his forces with great sophistication, with vivid string writing being juxtaposed with moments for just two choral voices. It is a long work, but Ross holds the architecture together so that this also feels like a journey.

All the music on this disc mines a certain furrow in the musical universe, one which has been called 'holy minimalism', but the works on this disc show that that tag is rather wide of the mark. What we have here is a willingness to re-think musical gesture, and to use simplicity for complex purposes. Graham Ross and his forces give us some magical moments, showing us a wide selection of highly sophisticated textures leading to a very satisfyingly varied programme. And throughout, the young performers show themselves attuned to the emotional complexities underlying the music.

Arvo Pärt (born 1935) - Da pacem,Domine (2004) [4.25]
Arvo Pärt - The Woman with the Alabaster Box (1997) [6.05]
Peteris Vasks (born 1946) - Plainscapes (2002) [15.00]
Arvo Pärt - Magnificat (1989) [7.33]
Arvo Pärt - Nunc Dimittis (2001) [6.50]
James MacMillan (born 1959) - Miserere (2009) [12.24]
Arvo Pärt - Stabat Mater (1985) [27.27]
Choir of Clare College, Cambridge
The Dmitir Ensemble
Jamie Campbell (violin)
Oliver Coates (cello)
Graham Ross (conductor)
Recorded in the Lady Chapel of Ely Cathedral, March 2018 and All Hallow's Church, Gospel Oak, London, July 2018
HARMONIA MUNDI HMM 905323 1CD [79.44]

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  • The merest smell is sufficient to turn my stomach: the complex relationship between Richard Wagner and Giacomo Meyerbeer  - feature article
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  • Exquisite sketches: songs by Reynaldo Hahn from Anastasia Prokofieva & Sergey Rybin on Stone Records - L'heure exquise - CD review
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