By Karl W. Nehring
Stabat: Includes works by Arvo Pärt, (Da Pacem, Domine; The Woman with the Alabaster Box; Magnificat; Nunc Dimittis; Stabat Mater); Peteris Vasks (Plainscapes); James MacMillan (Miserere). Graham Ross, Choir of Clare College, Cambridge; The Dmitri Ensemble. Harmonia Mundi HMM 905323.
Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, (b. 1935) is the featured composer on Stabat, which includes five of his compositions. By now, most classical music lovers should be familiar with his music, as his compositions have been recorded by myriad performers on a variety of labels. For those of us of a certain age, though, Pärt, was a newcomer who suddenly appeared on the scene with music unlike anything we had ever heard before. I can still vividly recall the first time I heard his music. While I was in graduate school, I had a weekend job as a security guard for Liebert Corporation, a manufacturer of computer support equipment that at that time basked in having recently been named one of the “100 Best Companies to Work for in America.” One of my late-night duties was to drive from my post at the main plant to check on their training center, which was a couple of miles or so away. On one of those late nights as I got into my car I found that the classical FM radio station was playing something completely engrossing, music such as I had never experienced before. I was spellbound! I sat and listened to the end of the piece, eager to find out what this music could possibly be. It turned out to be the landmark ECM release Tabula Rasa, featuring the music of Arvo Pärt as played by the then-young violinist Gidon Kremer and of all pianists, the jazz icon Keith Jarrett (who, sadly enough, has suffered a couple of strokes over the past couple of years and is no longer able to play the piano). Since then, I have been an avid Pärt fan (as well as a fan of Kremer and Jarrett) and have auditioned and owned many of his numerous compositions over the past several decades.
All of the Pärt, compositions in this collection have been recorded before, typically several times, but that does not diminish the quality or appeal of the performances on this CD by the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge. As a bonus, the inclusion of striking compositions of a similar musical and emotional appeal by the Latvian composer Peteris Vasks (b. 1946) and the Scottish composer James MacMillan (b. 1959) makes for a coherent, vibrant, and entertaining program.
The program kicks off with two Pärt compositions for choir alone. Da pacem, Domine was commissioned by the Catalonian conductor Jordi Savall (whose recent set of Beethoven Symphonies Nos. 1-5 figures prominently in my “get those reviews finished, darn it!” pile). Pärt started writing it two days after the Madrid bombings in March 2004, and it has been performed commemoratively in Spain every year since. The stirring chords playing off against each other are like tolling bells, moving and memorable. The next piece, The Woman with the Alabaster Box, features more of a traditional choir sonority, rich in reverberation as captured by the engineers. Pärt has an admirable ability to employ stillness as an expressive tool The soft descent into silence at the end of the piece is a marvel to behold.
Plainscapes by Vasks augments the sound of the choir with expressive support from violin and cello. The opening finds the choir joined by a high note from the violin, the violin then sliding into a haunting, almost spooky sound. At times, the two string instruments take the lead, spinning searching sounds that the choir supports and sustains with soft, tender accompaniment. There are no words, as the choir does not sing a text but rather employs vocalise throughout. Even without any sort of liturgical text, the net effect is nonetheless reverential.
Following the Vasks are two more pieces by Pärt, the choir once again singing a cappella. His setting of the Magnificat features rich harmonies weaving between male and female voices to create a reverential atmosphere capable of providing consolation and hope in these turbulent times for believers and nonbelievers alike. Oh, the healing power of great music! Nunc dimittis starts softly and slowly. As it proceeds, however, it builds in volume and intensity.
MacMillan’s Miserere seems to have a sound especially adapted to the acoustics and resonances of its physical setting. Simple vocal lines flow over each other, but are woven together in a more complex constitution than in the previous pieces in this program. The overall sound is larger, more complex—it is easy to imagine this as a work for orchestra. The ending is especially noteworthy for the way it winds down so skillfully and effectively.
The program closes with this recording’s longest (27:27) and most complex composition, Part's setting of the Stabat Mater. It opens with the strings alone, the choir not joining in for more than two minutes. And so the composition moves along, choir and chamber orchestra weaving in and out, intermingled with that silence so appropriate for his musical setting of a text that depicts the grief of Mary at Calvary.
All in all, this fine Harmonia Mundi CD, although with music rooted firmly in Christian liturgy, possesses musical and sonic excellence that can surely be appreciated by even the most secular of music lovers. Even if you already own recordings of some or even all of the Part compositions featured in this collection, the inclusion of the Vasks and MacMillan pieces, both of which are truly impressive, makes this release well worth seeking out. The engineering is excellent and the liner notes are useful. A first-class release in all respects.
Jake Runestad: Sing, Wearing the Sky. Includes The Secret of the Sea; Alleluia; Let My Love Be Heard; Sing, Wearing the Sky; Live the Questions; We Can Mend the Sky; Fear Not, Dear Friend; Proud Music of the Storm; I Will Lift Mine Eyes; Ner Ner. Joel Risema, Kantorei. Naxos 8.559892.
The mood shifts once again for the title number, Sing, Wearing the Sky, with lyrics by Lalla, a 14th-century Sufi poet/mystic from India. From the cover art on the CD I had a kind of metaphorical, abstract preconception of what the title meant, but then I encountered the lines, “My teacher told me, live in the soul. When that was so, I began to go naked, and dance. Dance, Lalla, with nothing on but air. Sing, Lalla, wearing the sky.” That put a different spin on things… As the piece proceeds, a violin adds a distinctly Indian vibe to the sonority, with a mezzo-soprano voice telling the story accompanied by the choir as well as the violin, piano, and percussion. The net effect is dramatic, the listener really feeling the spirit of the dance. The next selection, Live the Questions, offers life advice of a different sort, with lyrics taken from a letter that Rilke wrote to a young cadet in the Austrian army who had sought Rilke’s advice on some life decisions he was facing. The musical setting has turned to the more serious side once again, with some tender harmonies culminating in a memorable final chord.
The penultimate composition, I Will Lift Mine Eyes, is Runestad’s setting of Psalm 121. Runestad explains that “I came across Psalm 121 from the Bible and found great beauty in the admiration for natural creation linked with a promise of guidance and support from a higher power. I find such peace in the splendor of the natural world and I wanted to capture that serenity with this work.” As you might expect, the music is reverential and stately, sung with depth and conviction by Kantorei. That serious mood disappears as the final selection begins, Ner Ner being a highly energetic and rhythmically resplendent rendition of nonsense syllables. A strange way to end the album, perhaps, but certainly a fun way.
Overall, Sing, Wearing the Sky is entertaining and enjoyable. The recording quality is certainly good, maybe not audiophile quality but never off-putting. There are times when I found myself wishing for less reverberation, but on the other hand, it does add to the sense of hearing singers in a public space rather than a studio setting. The liner notes are useful, with lyrics included, This Naxos release is well worth an audition by fans of choral music.
Bonus Recommendation: Bruckner: Mass No. 3 in F minor. Margaret Price, soprano; Doris Soffel, alto; Peter Straka, tenor; Matthias Holle, bass; Philharmonischer Chor Munchen; Sergiu Celibidache, Munchner Philharmoniker (EMI 7243 5 56702 2 9) In the category of choral music, here is something special. Music lovers whose familiarity with the music of Anton Bruckner is based solely upon hearing his symphonies may already have sensed a spirit of religiosity in his music. His symphonies have been described as “cathedrals in sound,” and movements such as the Adagio from his Symphony No. 8 are certainly capable of stimulating transcendent thoughts and feelings in listeners’ minds and hearts. But Bruckner was not just a symphonist, he also wrote music in other genres, including three Masses, of which this is the third. Conductor Sergiu Celibidache did not believe music should be recorded, so he did not leave a recorded legacy like so many other conductors. This EMI release is of a live concert, part of a series of live recordings that have been given special care to make his music more available to the public. It is music of great depth and beauty; oi deed, the structure of the Mass and its text meant that Bruckner did not write the repetitious melodies with the abrupt endings he employed in his symphonies. It is as if the very limitations involved in setting the text to music are what freed him to compose some of his most beautiful music. This is an utterly wondrous release, well worth seeking out.