PÄRT: Stabat Mater; Peace Be Upon You, Jerusalem; L’abbe Agathon; Salve Regina; Magnificat; Nunc dimittis – Gloriae Dei Cantores/ Richard K. Pugsley – Gloriae Dei Cantores multichannel SACD GDCD 065, 69:02 *****:
The late Arvo Pärt is a remarkable musician; a convert to Eastern Orthodoxy from Lutheranism, he forged ahead with an uncanny ability to immerse himself in the spiritual ethos of his newly adopted faith, so far removed from the Protestant philosophy. Much—perhaps most—of his religious or “liturgical” music do not fit easily into true liturgical settings but are rather explorations of his own personal devotion using ancient, tried and true forms as the vehicle for his expression. This is nothing new—one rarely hears Beethoven’s Missa solemnis performed in church!
But there are some works that neatly fit the churchly rubric. Stabat Mater is one of them. Even though it is not part of the Eastern Orthodox church services—the Lamentations of the Mother of God before the tomb of Christ on Holy Friday evening are perhaps the closest parallel—it has long been an accepted hymn in the Roman Catholic Church. It was in fact suppressed, along with many other “sequences”, by the Council of Trent, but Pope Benedict XIII brought it back for the celebration of Our Lady of Sorrows in 1727. The popularity of the hymn has never wavered, with numerous composers engaging it over the years. Pärt has given it an exquisite treatment, and the version used here is fortunately the 2008 revision first recorded by the RIAS Chamber Choir and Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra under Kristjan Jarvi, released in 2010. In fact, it has been ten years since I reviewed that release. Originally for string trio and three solo singers, the upgraded version for choir and orchestra is far superior, adding depth and warmth that was previously, if not missing, certainly constrained. Plus, it can fit nicely into the liturgical constructs of an actual church service, if needed.
This cannot be said of L’abbe Agathon. Falsely accused as being simply a “legend”, the tale is well-known and attested as an incident in the lives of one of the Desert Fathers of the Christian Church. These lives are full of wisdom and practical, easily understood examples of the simplicity of Christian life. Pärt treats it as an energetic and important parable, setting to music that which can often devolve into saccharine and childish imagery in lesser hands. With its wonderful string ensemble and women’s chorus, this piece reminds me a bit of Britten’s church parables.
Peace Be Upon You, Jerusalem, is one of the “Songs of Ascent” found in the psalter, or Book of Psalms, in this case Psalm 22. It is a joyful and uplifting work for female voices. Salve Regina is another Roman Catholic setting, this time in its original setting for choir and organ (in 2011, Pärt reset the work for choir, celesta and string orchestra a celebration of 150 years of Italian unity). “Hail, O Queen”, devised by an 11th century German monk, had an initial tune associated with it, but Pärt uses his own in miraculous fashion, culminating in an eight-part climax in several places in the text.
Magnificat is of course as old as the hills, the song of the Mother of God in response to her conversation with Elizabeth, her cousin and the mother of John the Baptist. Pärt’s example stems from a single note, but the things he draws from this initial leitmotif are extraordinary! Liturgically this work is found in vespers in the Roman Catholic Church, and in Matins in the Eastern Orthodox Church, and possibly the most “set” of any liturgical text in history.
Finally, the Nunc dimittis (“Lord now lettest now thy servant depart in peace”) pronounced by Simeon the Righteous as he beheld the child Jesus in his hands, is given exploration as the culmination of the long, anticipatory, and righteous life of one whose patience and willingness ultimately paid off. We hear almost palpably the resignation of the old man’s final surrender into the hands of the one he waited for. Pärt is celebratory and reverent in the portrayal of this sublime incident.
Gloriae Dei Cantores has rarely sounded better than here. Intonation is spot on, emotional fervency at a high level, and the Super Audio recording captures them in all their magnificent fullness. There are few choral groups that not only perform, but believe in the texts they are singing, and this commitment to the spirit and the word enhances the communicative ability in a manner than most similar ensembles can only envy. A fantastic recording.