Arvo Pärt’s Kanon Pokajanen

It is no small irony that in an age that is condemned for being increasingly secular and materialistic, at least some of, if not the most significant and compelling music in Europe and America is, or has as its inspiration, church music: Krysztof Penderecki’s St. Luke Passion, Leonard Bernstein’s Mass, the music of John Tavener, Terry Riley’s Requiem for Adam and, perhaps more than any of these, the music of Arvo Pärt.

The Kanon Pokajanen is a setting of the Canon of Repentance from the liturgy of the Russian Orthodox Church. One thing that the composer notes in his own comments accompanying this recording is that the language of the text has a fundamental impact on the character of the work. In this case, the language is Old Church Slavonic, purely a liturgical language, and, while I can see very plainly that the compositional language that Pärt has used is definitively his own, there is a substantial difference between the “feel” of this work and that of, for example, the Passio, which is based on a Latin text. (Pärt’s own example is his Litany, with a text in English). The text was one that Pärt found intensely absorbing, corroborated by the fact that this composition took two years to complete and that the same text provided a starting point for two earlier works, Nun eile ich . . . (1990), and Memento (1994).

The text of the canon itself is ascribed to St. Andrew of Crete (660-740 C.E.), making it one of the earliest liturgical texts in the Orthodox Church, and certainly among the earliest in Church Slavonic. The theme of the canon is personal transformation, repentance as a necessary step in crossing the border, so to speak, between the trials of earthly life and salvation in heaven. In Pärt’s hands it becomes a quietly intense, contemplative experience, enthralling albeit sometimes profoundly unsettling. (I have been subjected to a spate of “religious” music lately in which reverence seems interchangeable with blandness. This is not the case with Arvo Pärt: this is a low-key, extraordinarily understated work that is, in the final analysis, exhausting because of its emotional complexity and depth.) It may just be that I am used to this composer’s vocabulary, but I find the work more than usually melodic, although it is by no means a radical departure for him; it may also be a function of the subtlety of the work itself.

Tönu Kaljuste and the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir have recorded a number of Pärt’s works, and it is quite probable that no other group, with the possible exception of the Hilliard Ensemble, has as firm a grasp of the composer’s aims. (I suspect that the composer would agree with that analysis, if for no other reason than that the work is dedicated to them.) They are, to put it quite succinctly, superb in this recording, providing an illuminating reading. The accompanying booklet, with a brief discussion of the Canon by Marina Bobrik-Fröme and a too brief discussion of the work itself by the composer, also contains the full text in English, French, German, and Church Slavonic.

Arvo Pärt has a distinct affinity for religious music; I can really think of few other composers who have his facility for rendering the meaning of religious experience into apprehendible form, and most of them are long dead. While thoroughly contemporary in its means, Kanon Pokajanen is one of those timeless works that seems to admit of no particular date of creation. I can feel the ancient text, just as I can feel the modern context of the setting. It is a work that embodies not only the deep stillness but the majesty of spiritual transformation.

(ECM Records, 1998)

About Robert Tilendis

Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there.

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