St Mary’s Pro-Cathedral, Dublin – Arvo Pärt – Kanon Pokajanen

Young composers must look at the score of Arvo Pärt’s Kanon Pokajanen with envy. Its 96 printed pages are virtually bare of dynamics and expression marks, omissions that create regular friction in composition seminars, as many young composers know to their cost.

Pärt has said of this and other works, “I tried to use language as a point of departure. I wanted the word to be able to find its own sound, to draw its own melodic line”. And within the clear pulses of his ever-shifting metres (the 12 bars of the first page alone contain nine changes of metre), it is the words of the Church Slavonic of the Kanon that ordain the unfolding shape of the music.

Unfolding is perhaps the wrong concept here. Pärt’s Kanon brings to mind the famous remark by Stravinsky about his having been merely the vessel through which The Rite of Spring passed. There is a monolithic quality about the Kanon, as if it never existed without being complete, as if what Pärt has done is merely to have seen it, and then revealed it so that listeners can dwell in it, survey it, soak up its distinctive atmosphere.

That atmosphere is austere in the extreme. The piece, a setting of the Orthodox Church’s canon of repentance, is long and slow. Its movement is glacial and punctuated with frequent silences. The repetition of motifs, the restrictions of melodic movement, the apparent uniformity of tread, the limitation in harmonic colouring are almost as monastic bread and water to the laden-tabled feasts of almost any well-known choral work you care to think of. Gregorian chant flexes more freely than this.

The work was written over a number of years (Pärt did not originally plan to set the complete Kanon), and in its complete form is dedicated to Tõnu Kaljuste and the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, who gave the premiere in Cologne on St Patrick’s Day in 1998.

The choir’s performance at the Pro-Cathedral in Dublin, part of a four-concert Irish tour, lasted less than an hour, considerably shorter than the 84 minutes of their ECM recording of the piece, which itself falls below the composer’s suggested range of 90 to 110 minutes.

The piece, like Morton Feldman’s five-and-a-half hour Second String Quartet, heard at last year’s Beckett Centenary Festival, raises issues about the nature of listening and concentration in the context of a concert experience.

And the decision of the Galway choir, Cois Cladaigh, promoters of the Estonian choir’s tour, to have the performance in virtual darkness raised issues of its own. If the words govern the music, then it seems strange to deprive an audience of the understanding of those words, by rendering the printed translation unreadable.

The performance itself was a tour de force of choral art. Kaljuste and the choir created and sustained an effect that was as elemental as the slow movement of clouds. The singing had a variety of tone and texture that you could liken to the grainy balances and contrasts that can make black and white photography so striking and imposing. And, although there were times when the music seemed to move too quickly, the handling of those moments when the piece momentarily shifts up a gear seemed perfectly paced. The two-fold Amen at the end brought a delighted audience to its feet.



St Peter’s Church of Ireland, Drogheda

This final concert of the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir’s tour offered an all-Estonian programme. The lion’s share of the evening was given over to works by Estonia‘s best-known composer, Arvo Pärt. It was good that the selection ran to Dopo la vittoria, a “little cantata” written for the cultural department of the city of Milan to mark the 1,600th anniversary of the death of St Ambrose in 1997.

The narrative adaptability of the setting – of an Italian translation of a Russian retelling of the baptism of St Augustine and first singing of the Te Deum – finds Pärt exploring a range of moods, including an almost giddy jauntiness, that are extremely rare in his output.

Under Tõnu Kaljuste, the choir’s adaptability within this piece, as within the programme as a whole, was exemplary.

The other works on the programme included the sophisticated folksiness of the earthy St John’s Day Songs that Veljo Tormis wrote within a series of Estonian Calendar Songs in the mid 1960s, three lighter and simpler folk-inspired settings by Cyrillus Kreek (1889-1962), and the strangely forced and inconclusive celebration of Toivo Tulev’s Rejoice, rejoice, rejoice!, commissioned by the British embassy for a state visit by Queen Elizabeth to Estonia last October.