Back in 2009, when I was just beginning to get my head around writing about the experiences of listening to the music of Arvo Pärt, I discussed his sensitivity to what I called the “inherent musical value” of sacred text. I suggested that one could take the mystical conception of the Word made flesh in The Gospel According to Saint John and follow it through to the Word made music through the grammar, logic, and rhetoric of Pärt’s music. Listening to Adam’s Lament, the latest ECM New Series recording (to be released tomorrow) of nine compositions by Pärt, eight of which are explicitly sacred music, I am more aware than ever of the intense religious devotion that he brings to his work and how that devotion is realized in the physical world of voices and instruments.
The title of the recording is also that of the first track. This is one of Pärt’s lengthier compositions, almost 25 minutes in duration; and it draws upon the writings of Saint Silouan the Athonite, so called because he served in the monastery on Mount Athos in Greece until his death in 1938. He was barely literate; but his texts, in Church Slavonic, were published in the Fifties by his pupil and biographer Archimandrite Sophrony, to whom “Adam’s Lament” is dedicated. The work is scored for choir and string orchestra, performed on this new recording by the combined vocal resources of the Latvian Radio Choir and the Vox Clamantis chamber choir, along with the Sinfonietta Riga, all under the direction of Tõnu Kaljuste, well known for his interpretation of Pärt’s scores.
The accompanying booklet provides an English translation of Silouan’s text by Rosemary Edmonds. It is far from sophisticated, yet it stands as one of the most intense reflections on Original Sin that one is likely to encounter; and Pärt realizes it with striking profundity through his consistently keen sense of both vocal and instrumental sonorities. Nevertheless, the source of that Church Slavonic text is likely to be far more alien to most listeners than the Latin sources for many of his other sacred compositions. Between the unfamiliarity of the language itself and the reverberations of Niguliste Church in Tallinn, most listeners are unlikely to grasp the actual linguistic source; and any such effort is impeded by the lack of either the source text or its transliteration in the booklet. Still, the general sense of the impressions evoked by the score should be sufficient to convey at least some measure of the depth of Pärt’s embodiment of Silouan’s words through music.
Less problematic in this regard is his medium-length (less that fifteen minutes) cantata about an encounter between Saint Agathonicus and a leper. This is cast as a three-voice narrative for narrator (a female choir, members of the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir), the leper (soprano Tui Hirv), and the abbot Agathonicus (baritone Rainer Vilu). Accompaniment is provided by a string orchestra (the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra). If the words are not crystal clear, one can at least recognize the alternation of the narrating voices; and the English text in the booklet accounts for what those voices are saying. Most important is the climax when the leper reveals himself as an angel sent to test the abbot, rendered with striking intensity through Pärt’s command of the instrumental dynamics.
Indeed, Pärt has been well served by CD technology due to his tendency to express himself through dynamics ranging from barely audible to (at least) fortississimo. The old vinyl recording processes could never handle such extremes. However, one needs relatively good equipment and the courage to turn up the volume to appreciate the full scope of Pärt’s expressiveness.
The remainder of the recording includes one other medium-length work, a setting of the “Salve Regina” hymn, and an assortment of shorter pieces in a variety of settings. The most striking of these would be “Beatus Petronius,” scored for two choirs, eight woodwinds, tubular bells, and string orchestra, performed by the Latvian Radio Choir and Sinfonietta Riga. There are also two lullaby settings, one for Christmas and one secular, which are delightfully expressive in their simplicity. These are saved for the last two tracks, as if to comfort the listener who has sustained the profundity of the preceding selections.