Bogoroditze Djev (O Mother of God) / The Woman With the Alabaster Box
Kanon Pokojanen (Odes 1, 7 & 9) / Nunc Dimittis
Cantoris, directed by Rachel Hyde
St.Andrew’s on-the-Terrace, Wellington – Lunchtime Concert Series
Wednesday, 17th August 2011
(review adapted from transcript notes of a review on RNZ Concert’s “Upbeat”,with Clarissa Dunn, 19.08.11)
Tell us about listening to Arvo Pärt in the middle of a wintry Wellington day!
Arvo Pärt’s music was, I think a wonderful choice of repertoire with which to finish one’s work with a choir. Pärt is a composer who’s contributed of late to a quiet revolution that’s taken place within the confines of contemporary classical music, turning his back on much of the avant-garde modes of expression in favor of something whose simplicity and beauty of utterance has won a huge following, including many listeners who would have regarded most contemporary music as too elitist, difficult, austere, esoteric and frankly unattractive.
Was Cantoris’ programme a good representative selection of Pärt’s choral music?
Yes,I think it was – the choices were both vibrant and contemplative, outwardly expressive and inwardly mystical, simply beautiful and quietly austere – people who didn’t know the composer’s music would, I think, get a good idea of its salient qualities from attending this concert.
He’s a composer who’s undergone something of a journey to reach his present status.
Well, certainly a multi-faceted journey – inwardly and outwardly, as they say in analytical circles. In his youth Pärt was remarked of as a composer who “only had to shake his sleeves and notes fell out of them”. His early compositions followed the austere lines of Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Bartok, and then to the serialism of Schoenberg – this quickly got him into trouble with the Soviet Authorities (Estonia had been taken over by the Soviet Union) and performances of his works were actually banned. His response was to withdraw and study early music from Medieval and Renaissance times, the influence of the Russian Orthodox Church plainchant making its mark as well. He emerged from this silence with an entirely new compositional philosophy.
How would you describe this change?
Pärt has famously described his later music as “tintinnabuli” – like the ringing of bells, music characterized by simple harmonies, using single unadorned notes or triads, deriving from the music of medieval and renaissance times studied so intently by the composer. The interesting thing is that this music, like a lot of the early music that was Pärt’s inspiration, has such a powerful simplicity – using little rhythmic complexity, unselfconscious harmonic display using pure intervals and almost no dissonance, and a clarity of texture at all times. What comes from this is music that touches many listeners deeply and profoundly. Pärt’s own words sum up this new way of making music: “I have discovered that it is enough when a single note is beautifully played. This one note, or a silent beat, or a moment of silence, comforts me. I work with very few elements – with one voice, two voices. I build with primitive materials – with the triad, with one specific tonality. The three notes of a triad are like bells and that is why I call it tintinnabulation”.
Tell us about Rachel Hyde, who’s stepping down an musical director of “Cantoris” after this series of concerts.
Rachel is going to concentrate on finishing a law degree – in her own words “it’s now or never”! She felt that with all the things she wanted to do, her work with the choir was suffering, so it was better to relinquish that and let somebody else carry on with the good work. She’s going to continue working with her children’s orchestra, the Schola Sinfonica, and also, hopefully, will do the occasional public concert with groups like Bow, the String Ensemble she helped to found, and the Wellington Chamber Orchestra.
This series of concerts – where are they taking place?
The choir is giving two more concerts in this series – free of charge to the public, incidentally – the first tonight at Wellington’s City Gallery at 6pm and then on Sunday in Porirua, at the Pataka Arts Centre at 2pm.
I understand the weather has caused some performing groups some difficulties this week – what about Cantoris?
Rachel told me that the rehearsals hadn’t been without difficulties due to the weather – at least one rehearsal was called off entirely, and one of the choir’s strongest-voiced male singers has been left with next to no voice due to a cold – the entrails weren’t exactly propitious, one would have thought, and it’s a tribute to both Rachel and her choir that the music was delivered with such expertise and energy and beauty, despite all tribulations.
So, let’s look at the programme, six shorter pieces for choir – in general, how well did you feel the voices put across this music?
I’m pretty much a beginner listener, when it comes to Arvo Pärt’s music, and going to this concert and listening to the recordings we’re going to play has been a revelation for me, as I’m sure it will to others who go to any of the concerts. Compared with the singing on the recordings, Cantoris’s approach was gentler, less assertive than the singing of choirs such as the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, a group who would have been pretty well steeped in the composer’s music. In view of the difficulties experienced by the group in preparing for this concert, their achievement in making the music live and breathe the way it sounded to me is, I think all the more commendable.
The first piece, very short, was Bogoroditse Djevo (translated, it means “O Mother of God”) – here, a lovely, well-focused performance, not trumpet-toned in the big moments (as I’m sure the trebles of the Kings College Cambridge Choir were able to do when it was first performed by them in 1992 – Pärt wrote the piece for the Choir to perform at their Christmas Concert that year) but gentler-grained, like the pipings of woodwinds.
The Woman With the Alabaster Box (1997) came next – an interesting work, a setting of Matthew’s Gospel (from Chapter 26 Verse 7 onwards). Again, the piece was very nicely and ambiently sung, and somewhat more demanding to bring off compared with some of Pärt’s output, duet to the composer’s extending his harmonies to include some expressive dissonances. Interestingly, this was a setting of the words in English, the story of the woman who empties a box of expensive oil over Christ’s head, to the consternation of the disciples, who complain that the oil would have been better sold so that money could be given to the poor. In places the setting seemed almost deliberately unidiomatic, as if to avoid English speech stresses and render the words as pure sound – a kind of marmoreal effect, which I found was a bit alienating. I admired this work but didn’t fall in love with it! Actually, I thought Cantoris’s performance was warmer than the one I heard on the commercial recording – here, we heard some lovely work in thirds from the men, well sustained, and carrying them through some uncertain moments later on. Throughout the concert, there was this imbalance between the men’s and women’s voices, the tenors and basses obviously missing strength of tone due to the effects from colds.
The next three items I did fall in love with! These were exerpts from the composer’s Kanon Pokajanen, written in 1995, an extended eighty-minute work in total, and dedicated by the composer to commemorate the 750th anniversary of Cologne Cathedral. This is a stunning work, and it features Pärt’s slow-moving triadic harmonies, intensifying in places into bell-like tones – a real embodiment of the composer’s idea of “tintinabuli”. The music has a strongly-flavoured Slavic tone, to my ears – I think you can hear that Russian Orthodox Chant tradition which the composer explored, very reminiscent, naturally of Rachmaninov’s writing for choirs in his Vespers – the same kind of sound, not like any other music I know. It places great demands on the singers, and Cantoris, again struggling in places with a slight imbalance between women’s and men’s voices managed to convey plenty of atmosphere and feeling. The women’s voices were particularly steady – very mesmeric and evocative. The occasional rawness of tone gave the performance an attractive “here-and-now” quality, rather than something that sounded as though it was being performed celestially or somewhere comparable on the other side of the Great Divide. While looking up information on the internet about recorded performances of this music, I read a heartfelt review of the work from a teenaged boy who described how he lay on his bed and sobbed at the music’s sheer beauty and expressive power – a life-changing experience, one would suspect. The work’s been famously recorded by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir on the ECM label – over eighty minutes of pure, simple other-worldly sound.
The concert finished with Pärt’s “Nunc Dimittis”, the well-known prayer for a soul’s departure*. Though not without some momentary unsteadiness in the voices at the initial cry, this was quickly corrected, and gave us that sense of humanity searching for the light – some lovely solo work from one of the sopranos, very secure in her pitching, creating a real feeling of frisson in places, and leading with surety towards the great moment of salutation of the light by the massed voices at the word “lumen”. Later there came more of Pärt’s tintinnabuli, bell-like oscillations from all parts of the choir, the men’s deep voices almost being felt rather than heard, and the women’s secure tones nicely pitched – the music seems not to resolve at the end, but simply stops, as if, in one’s mind the sounds repeat down the ages, representing humanity’s everlasting supplication towards light and goodness.
(*not “Out of the Depths” as I blurted out on air unthinkingly, which was, of course “De Profundis”)