If you're a fan of vocal music, you have to consider yourself fortunate that two of today's greatest living composers are masters of choral writing. Einojuhani Rautavaara and Arvo Pärt not only consider the uniquely expressive aspects of choral music to be worthy of serious creative exploration, but their music really thrives in this very special realm of words set to music. Of course, Pärt has devoted most of his compositional efforts of the past two decades to vocal music and although it can't be succinctly defined, has found a style that's clearly identifiable as his own. This CD features three world premieres, and at least one of them--I Am the True Vine (1996)--is a genuine masterpiece. Written for the 900th anniversary of England's Norwich Cathedral with a text from the Bible's book of John, this eight-minute piece carries its message with an irresistibly uplifting spirit, led by pure, potently concordant harmonies and insistent, soaring soprano punctuations. This is a piece that you want to hear again immediately after it ends--and it's primarily constructed from the simplest intervals of thirds, fifths, and sixths. In the same style the other two premiere works, The Woman With the Alabaster Box and Tribute to Caesar, both from 1997 with texts from the gospel of St. Matthew, make their own special impact, following Pärt's familiar homophonic, syllabic form, the phrasing as natural as human breath yet full of inflective power.
The program's "big" piece is yet another setting of Pärt's Berlin Mass, a 1997 revision for four voices and organ of the composer's 1990 original, but drawing from an intervening version for strings and chorus. It's a vocally formidable yet totally accessible and, in this version, liturgically functional work. Another remarkable piece is the program opener, Bogoróditse Djévo. Lasting barely more than one minute, this setting of the Ave Maria from the Orthodox Liturgy at first will surprise you because its lively, invigorating rhythmic movement is so unlike most of Pärt's typically more meditative writing. Here's a piece that, along with I Am the True Vine, should become standard repertoire for all first class choirs. And speaking of choirs, Paul Hillier's Pro Arte Singers are simply faultless in these works, demonstrating at every turn their mastery of the aspects of vocal technique, tone, expression, phrasing, blend, and ensemble unity and musicianship that determine choral supremacy. The sound, too, is ideal, benefiting both from masterful engineering and first-rate locations, including England's Ely Cathedral. Once again, Pärt has shown his listeners that simple tonal techniques and careful, caring attention to text still is the most effective way to convey meaning and emotion in choral music. You'll agree when you hear this; and hopefully so will those who dole out awards for best discs of the year.
--David Vernier, ClassicsToday.com