NEW YORK –Historically informed performance is not a term commonly applied to compositions of the late 20th or 21st centuries. But a concert Nov. 12 by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra demonstrated that the music of Arvo Pärt requires rigorous historical awareness on the performers’ part.
The program, part of the Sacred Music in a Sacred Space series at the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola, included six works by Pärt, one of them a U.S. premiere of sorts. Prayer was written as part of a larger choral composition, the 1997 Kanon Pokajanen (Canon of Repentence); for this five-concert U.S. tour, backed by the Arvo Pärt Project for the Estonia 100 celebration of Estonian independence, Pärt added string orchestra to the originally a cappella work.
Pärt’s Berliner Messe was the centerpiece of the program. Under the baton of founder Tõnu Kaljuste, the 25-person choir displayed vocal techniques one expects to hear in early-music performances: almost no vibrato, tone production placed in the front of the skull’s “mask,” and intonation that allowed perfect fourths and fifths to sound without beats.
Nothing could have been more appropriate, given that this Mass borrows heavily from the medieval tradition, not only in its music but also its structure. It comprises the five texts from the Ordinary (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei) plus three Propers texts (two Alleluias and the Veni Sancte Spiritus); each of those texts is afforded a single movement, although the tradition starting in the Baroque was to split each Mass section into multiple sections (think of Vivaldi’s Gloria for an extreme example).
The Berliner Kyrie was a thing of sublime peace, with the high sopranos floating right up to the heavens; the thick, not-quite-triadic chords of the Gloria emphasized fourths instead of thirds. The choir managed long homorhythmic passages with exacting attention to ensemble. The first Alleluia featured two fine soloists from the tenor and bass sections on the verses, answered by chorus and orchestra, on the word “Alelluia,” another nod to medieval practice.
As for the string orchestra, a group also founded by Kaljuste, its role was sometimes to double or answer the chorus, but often to rest. It’s hardly incidental that the 1990 version of Berliner Messe was for choir and organ; the switch to strings was made the following year. The players were good listeners, imitating the intensity and phrasing of the choir. Perhaps the most affecting of many brilliant moments in Kaljuste’s conducting were the waves of sound he created from the short musical sentences in the Credo.
A theme of the evening was the wisdom of St. Silouan (1866-1938), an Eastern Orthodox monk whose impassioned religious writings have served as inspiration for Pärt’s music on several occasions. Interestingly, two of those works were, in fact, textless compositions. The first was Für Lennart in memoriam, a 2006 tribute to former Estonian president Lennart Meri. Pärt’s starting point was a prayer (text not provided in the program) by one of Silouan’s disciples, Archimandrite Sophrony.
Pärt also borrowed music for this piece from his Kanon Pokajanen, a fact that helped to stylistically interconnect the sections of the first half. Für Lennart opens with sustained mid-range draws of the bow, a texture Kaljuste focused until it seemed to bore into one’s soul.
The second instrumental work, opening the second half of the program, was Silouan’s Song for string orchestra. This 1991 composition, inspired by a text by Silouan himself, features the technique Pärt calls tintinnabuli, in which one contrapuntal voice arpeggiates a triad while another moves along a diatonic scale.
The strings played with mutes in Pärt’s signature short phrases separated by breaths. One imagines he is always writing for voice in his heart of hearts, very much like Mozart. The evening’s only intonation problems marred a few moments, but the musicians recovered quickly. Pärt builds up the ideas in this piece dangerously close to bombast, but Kaljuste shaped what might have been a wall of sound in lesser hands into an orb radiating from a sonic core.
A striking difference between the first and second half of the program was the type of historical materials igniting Pärt’s imagination. While the first half featured neo-Medieval and neo-Renaissance ideas, the remainder of the program looked at more recent history for techniques. The playing and singing changed accordingly. The vibrato widened in both voices and strings, as did the range of dynamics and roundness of tone. Clearly, we had moved on to neo-Classicism.
In the Salve Regina (a 2011 version of a 2001 work), the balance between choir and orchestra shifted to make them equal. All the while, the bell sounds of a celeste, played by Marrit Gerretz-Traksmann, gave the piece an other-worldly quality. The composer shows masterful restraint, holding back word painting: he leaves the line “Ad te clamamus” (To thee we do cry) to blend in with its minimal surroundings, thus allowing for greater effect later in the fortissimo desperation of lines like “post hoc exsilium” (after [our] exile).”
A recurring topic in St. Silouan’s writing is repentance. The monk’s gripping exegesis on how Adam longed for God when he and Eve were thrown out of Eden serves as the text for Pärt’s Adam’s Lament, whichthe program. These same forces (with help from a few other ensembles) won the 2014 Best Choral Performance Grammy award for their recording of this work on ECM. Even with the smaller group, it’s easy to see why.
What set this work apart from the others was how Russian it is, from the leaping melody lines reminiscent of a Prokofiev theme to the cellists slapping the wood of their bows against the strings while the bass singers belted out stentorian rhythms. But, lest all that Russianness had made us forget Pärt’s love of the European Middle Ages, the work ended with a hollow octave-and-fifth sonority – no third in that chord!
According to his publisher, Universal Editions, Pärt has been the world’s most-performed living composer every year since 2010. One reason may be that he has found a way to defy time by embracing the power of history. You will find no more luxurious conveyance for this temporal journey than Kaljuste’s ensembles.
Anne E. Johnson is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. Her arts journalism has appeared in The New York Times, Classical Voice North America, Chicago On the Aisle, and Copper: The Journal of Music and Audio. For many years she taught music history and theory in the Extension Division of Mannes School of Music.
Look further: All-Pärt Concert Reflects Embrace Of Music History