I first ran across the music of Arvo Pärt many years ago, in a coffee shop owned by a man whose taste in music was as eclectic as my own. It was the Passio, and I was intrigued enough that it was my beach music for the entire summer. (I think at the time it was the only work by Pärt available in the U.S. That’s how long ago it was.) That was then, this is now, and there is much more of Pärt’s music available, thanks in large part to record companies such as ECM, which brings us a new collection, The Deer’s Cry.
I find it more than a little ironic that, in an age marked by secularism and materialism, among the most compelling music to come out of Europe and America is what I call, in general, “church music”: it can be works as monumental as Krysztof Penderecki’s St. Luke Passion or Leonard Bernstein’s Mass, as outrageously unorthodox as Terry Riley’s Requiem for Adam, or as focused and sometimes as intimate as the music of Arvo Pärt. (Not that Pärt is any stranger to monumentality. Far from it.)
The title track of this collection is a setting of a prayer attributed to St. Patrick. Like most of the selections, it is a cappella and displays Pärt’s facility for choral writing (and the affinity of choral group Vox Clamantis for Pärt’s music). Vox Clamantis fully captures that unearthly feeling that is an essential component of Pärt’s work.
That feeling carries through to the rest of the disc, composed of short works (the longest is “Gebet nach dem Kanon”, which closes the album, at just over ten minutes. Most of these works were composed after 2000, except for “Gebet nach dem Kanon”, from the 1990s, and “Summa”, one of Pärt’s best-known works from the 1970s.
The album is so nearly seamless that it’s hard to pick out anything like “highlights”. Don’t, however, take that as meaning it’s monotonous: nothing could be farther from the truth. It’s more that, for example, the contrast between “Virgencita”, with its spare, contemplative mood, and the fluidity and rich textures of “Alleluia-Tropus”, which immediately precedes it, is more than enough to maintain interest while giving the feel of movements of a much larger work. It’s worth noting that in those pieces that do include instrumental accompaniment (“Von Angesicht zu Angesicht”, “Veni Creator”, “Sei gelobt, du Baum”) one barely notices the additional forces unless it is to marvel at the rightness of their presence, as in, for example, “Sei gelobt, du Baum” as a solo violin completes a line begun by the chorus as though it were another soprano, a testament, I think, both to Pärt’s overarching vision and the richness of sound produced by Vox Clamantis.
Having been very enthusiastic about Pärt’s music since that long-ago introduction to the Passio, I’m looking at The Deer’s Cry as a welcome addition to my library, both for the chance to hear new works (the collection includes the world premiere of “Habitare fratres in unum”) and to hear what is for me a new and very accomplished group of performers.
(EMC Records, 2016)