Occasionally a new release comes along that, because of its uniqueness, or particular sonic character, or some other strange yet compelling power, invites–or perhaps demands–a particular kind of listening, one that requires just sitting back and closing the eyes, letting the music just “happen”–as opposed to making notes and reaching for comparison performances. This is one of them.
Arvo Pärt is certainly not new on the scene, nor are the works on this CD new creations. The opening, title work, The Deer’s Cry, has been recorded at least a half-dozen times, yet when you hear it here, performed by the esteemed Estonian vocal group Vox Clamantis, followed by one gem after another from Pärt’s wide-ranging catalog, itRead more simply impresses you with the composer’s genius, his ability to captivate listeners with a style that’s at once simple yet affecting in a way that belies that simplicity.
In Pärt’s most-familiar style–all but three of the 13 works here are post-2000; several are revisions of the originals–silence is as important an element as his triad/diatonic melody-fragment tintinnabuli effects. And in these very tonal pieces–confirmation of that oft-quoted claim by Schoenberg in 1940 about plenty of good music yet to be written in C major (although Pärt prefers minor keys, so let’s say A minor)–Pärt builds his structures slowly; he’s almost never in a hurry (except perhaps in his Bogoroditse Devo, which isn’t on this program), and he works with a very basic set of blocks–blocks of chords that often take a long time to progress very far (lots of tonic/dominant, laced with spiky dissonances and occasional jazz harmonies); blocks of vocal parts that sometimes move all together, but more often are divided into groups, each with its own opposing rhythmic pattern; and blocks of repeating metrical/thematic/harmonic ideas that can stretch or contract, unanchored to barlines. Melody, of the type that ordinarily would carry a piece, is not a central feature in most of these works–again melodic material comes in the form of short thematic blocks–cells or motives rather than true melodies.
If you listen to a lot of these pieces at one sitting, you will notice a kind of sameness: you recognize those abovementioned blocks. But it’s the ingenious and varied manner that Pärt employs them that ultimately gives each piece a distinctive character and quality. Silence is key in The Deer’s Cry (sound clip); a major triad shines in Von Angesicht zu Angesicht and Veni Creator; close intervals, dissonance, and jazz harmony color Virgencita; a repetitive droning chant generates excitement in Drei Hirtenkinder aus Fatima. Not everything is equally ingratiating–And One of the Pharisees and Gebet nach dem Kanon seem a bit long for their material–but even in these pieces (respectively 8 and 10-plus minutes) the sonority and expressive aspects of the solo parts keep you happily listening.
Vox Clamantis has long experience not only with Pärt’s music–he has even written music for the group–but with early music style that suits these modern pieces perfectly. The singing is marked by gorgeous ensemble sound, ideal balances among parts, and sensitive attention to the special, often very subtle expressive nuances so important to performing Pärt’s music that many choirs miss or just misunderstand.
One thing I don’t understand is why ECM chose to print texts only in the original languages, especially when some of them are in Church Slavonic. What’s the point? For most readers, those, Cyrillic script and all, might as well be in Martian. Other texts are in English, German, Spanish, and Latin. And not only are text translations missing, but neither is there a single note about the music, its provenance, or its significance in the Arvo Pärt canon. (You’ll have to do your own online search to find out why the title work is called “The Deer’s Cry”.) I guess those who make these decisions figured that if you don’t know Pärt by now…
But this is just the sort of recording that anyone new to his music should hear, and for them–and anyone who loves beautiful music and first-class choral singing–the rewards of listening will at least temporarily override my above concerns about documentation. And besides, if your eyes are closed, who’s reading anyway? Strongly recommended.