Latvian Radio Choir & Sinfonietta Riga/Tönu Kaljuste – Arvo Pärt

Berliner Messe
Te Deum
Adam’s Lament

Latvian Radio Choir

Sinfonietta Riga
Tönu Kaljuste

Reviewed by: Lewis M. Smoley

Reviewed: 17 November, 2012
Venue: Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City

Arvo Pärt (b.1935)Arvo Pärt (born 1935) has achieved international acclaim for his extraordinary liturgical works. Beginning in the 1970s, Pärt, a devout worshipper of the Eastern Orthodox church, abandoned his astringent, complex and heavily dissonant compositional style and devoted himself to expressing his religious convictions in sacred music. He found a distinctive voice that combines distinctive harmonic techniques with an ambience that evokes the timeless meditative quality of medieval plainchant. Spare textures and simple sonorities with a tinge of dissonance create a soft, luminescent glow.

The Latvian Radio Choir consists of twenty-five young singers whose purity of tone, engaging manner of expression and sublime sotto voce make them perfect for Pärt’s music. After a few imprecise entrances, the vocalists settled to render an exquisite performance, their soft tones generating warmth and an atmosphere of heavenly bliss. Sinfonietta Riga also consists of young musicians who performed admirably and in perfect balance with the choir. Tönu Kaljuste, an able and experienced exponent of Pärt’s music, evidenced his devotion throughout.

Tönu Kaljuste. Photograph: Harri RospuThe concert began with Berliner Messe, originally for choir and organ. A three-note motif unifies the work. To the principal sections of the mass, Pärt adds two ‘Alleluias’ that blend rich harmonies with chant-like solos. The opening ‘Kyrie’ begins with hushed lines with a warm glow in the strings. An assertive, energetic ‘Gloria’ follows, building to a stirring conclusion. After the two ‘Alleluias’, an extensive ‘Veni Sancte Spiritus’ offers some of the most beautiful passages in Pärt’s religious music. The mood becomes lighter and more-spirited with the joyful ‘Credo’, written in mixed meters and concluding with a full church cadence. The ‘Sanctus’ is not the usual celebratory declamation, but a solemn and poignant meditation, the ‘Agnus Dei’ ending the work with comforting serenity.

In Te Deum, two vocal quartets, one male and one female, form concertante-like groups that are set off against the full choir or each other. Fugal entrances of each string section introduce a Baroque character. An overall sense of calm and devotional restraint and an atmosphere filled with awe and dread pervade much of the music. An eerie violin solo responds to a soprano’s prayer for salvation, leading to a forceful plea for redemption that soon softens in deepest humility; and the prayer of the ‘Miserere’ for saving grace was expressed with fervent yearning.

Trisagion (1992) is for strings, its Greek title – ‘Thrice Holy’ – referring to a sequence of prayers from the Eastern Orthodox service. A three-note motif serves as the melodic core of the work. Applying his tintinnabulation technique, Pärt uses these three notes in various groupings and sequences. Light dissonances are more frequent here than in the works heard earlier. Despite a few moments when intonation went awry, Kaljuste and his players acquitted themselves well.

Adam’s Lament (2009) is a setting of a meditation by Staretz Silouan (1866-1938), a Greek monk who was canonized by the Eastern Orthodox Church. Silouan’s moving poetry reveals Adam in profoundest grief having disobeyed the Lord, thus causing all the suffering the human race has had to endure. From the outset it is evident that Pärt’s style has developed measurably. Bach-like characteristics are more prominent here, yet the influence of medieval chant is still apparent. The atmosphere of supplication stresses Adam’s suffering and humble plea for understanding that expresses grief without succumbing to an effusive outpouring of sorrow. More melodic and dramatic than the other works performed here, Adam’s Lament nevertheless refrains from being overly descriptive. This captivatingly beautiful work was admirably performed.

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