Arvo Pärt, Plainchant, Pérotin

Te Deum – plainchant
Sederunt principes
Beata viscera [from Worcester Fragments, 14th-century English]
An den Wassern zu Babel (Psalm 137)
Motet: Virgo plena gratie [13th-century French]
Nunc dimittis
Salve Regina
Laude novella sia cantata [13th-century Italian]
Dopo la vittoria

Christopher Bowers-Broadbent (organ)

Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir
Paul Hillier

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 17 August, 2005
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

It was an interesting idea to couple works by Arvo Pärt with the plainchant and medieval music which has inspired and informed his output since 1976, when he discovered a new style based on these – and other – earlier models. But what seems to work well as an idea does not necessarily transfer to reality; here there was a ‘sameness’ about the repertoire selected, despite careful variety of forces having been chosen.

The choir processed in to a plainsong setting of the “Te Deum”, though if it had been intended to suggest a liturgical happening, it ought to have been noted that the “Te Deum” invariably concluded proceedings! The singers emerged from opposite entrances to the stalls, and there were moments of considerable imprecision when the two ‘sides’ were singing in unison. In fact, it took an item or two before the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir was entirely at ease.

Pérotin’s “Sederunt principes” was sung by men’s voices, but in a manner which felt too heavy, with rigid rhythms delivered in a somewhat lumpish fashion – surely not at all what was intended. The women blended and balanced better in “Beata viscera”, which preceded the first Pärt piece on the programme – “An den Wassern zu Babel (Psalm 137)”. One of the earliest of Pärt’s ‘new’ style, this does not set the text of the psalm, as might be expected, but vowels (i, e and o) taken from the words “Kyrie eleison” colour and, one assumes, ‘illustrate’ the nine verses or the psalm. Voices are heard in various solos and groupings, and the sudden conclusion, with dramatic organ accompaniment, undeniably and graphically suggests the sentiment of the psalm’s final verse: “happy are they who taketh thy children and dasheth them against the stones”.

Calmer fare from the men’s voices followed in the graceful lilt of “Virgo plena gratie”, sung three times with different vocal scoring on each occasion. Two settings in Latin by Pärt suggested a slightly eccentric approach to word-setting on the part of the composer. Syntactically, that for “Nunc dimittis” was decidedly odd, and whilst the essential gentleness of the text was captured, the jubilation was underplayed. With its drones and subdued atmosphere, it is difficult to believe that Pärt, like his English counterpart John Tavener, enjoys fast cars and fine wines! In “Salve Regina”, the organ plays an accompaniment which can only be described as a kind of lop-sided waltz; at the conclusion, figuration reminiscent of both Philip Glass and Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ Sonata seemed incongruous in context.

The final Anonymous contribution found the women’s voices interacting mellifluously in “Laude novella”, with its refrain attractively varied each time. Pärt’s piece for solo organ – Trivium – afforded contrast before the concluding vocal item. A melody is presented in three ‘guises’, and its rhythmic solidity suggested a kind of procession. Christopher Bowers-Broadbent provided secure playing and inventive registration in this solo and for the accompaniments. Unaccompanied voices presented “Dopo la vittoria” which had the virtue, in its opening and closing paragraphs, of a degree of charm and lightness, reflecting, perhaps, Italian madrigalists, as it was a commission from the city of Milan.

It is a curious text describing the process of writing, by St Ambrose, of the text of the “Te Deum”. It is taken from a “History of Church Singers and Chants”, and its dull prose hardly seems inspiring. But Pärt has risen to the challenge, and within the ‘lighter’ framework, his more sombre style relates the creation of the sacred text with some effective responses to words. The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, once the singers had found their feet, sang consistently well, with the women being rather stronger than the men, and voices being more confident in ensemble than as soloists. It was instructive – to a degree – to hear Arvo Pärt’s music in the given context, though as he reaches 70, one wonders whether he might be considering expanding his range and vocabulary of expression.

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