Recording of March 1994: Pärt: Te Deum, etc.

PÄRT: Te Deum, Silouans Song, Magnificat, Berliner Messe
Tõnu Kaljuste, Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, Talinn Chamber Orchestra
ECM 1505 (CD only). Manfred Eicher, prod.; Peter Laenger, Andreas Neubronner, engs. DDD. TT: 66:01

To describe Arvo Pärt, I am forced to adapt his own metaphor. I am not a Christian, but I believe that the Holy Spirit must move through this man as light is refracted through a crystal; its nature is discovered, but its essence is unchanged. His music requires, I think, to be spoken of in such Renaissance terms.

Here we have four pieces, each written on commission and each a gem of compositional style. The Te Deum is drawn out of silence, as the composer himself suggests, and represents a genuine and simple hymn of praise, with the words of the text beautifully framed by the music. Silouans Song struck me as suggestive of Vaughan Williams, with the melancholy sound of the lower strings supported by a powerful bass line characteristic of Pärt, who more and more shows himself as a superb orchestral colorist. His Magnificat is very medieval in spirit and structure, simple and yet enormously evocative.

The Berlin Mass is extraordinary, very probably the finest modern Mass setting, representing a return to the concerns of early Renaissance composers, with each added layer of polyphony in the Veni Sancte Spiritus resounding like a new color added to the spectrum. Pärt resists entirely the temptation to dwell overlong on any one phrase; there is no desire here to embellish anything. I am struck once again by the fact that Arvo Pärt appears to write music that is completely and transparently to the glory of God. For myself, I am sometimes certain that the Cathari must be right: that this sublunary world must be no less than Hell itself. Listening to Pärt might well convince me otherwise.

This is very close to a purist recording, sonically as well as musically. The session photos show that accent mikes were used, but the soundstage is deep and natural. There is no sense of harsh spotlighting on either vocalists or instruments, although detail is precisely rendered throughout. (Listen, for example, to the prepared piano in the Te Deum with its curiously archaic tonalities.) I suspect that the composer is involved with the recording as well as the performance; they are entirely of a piece.—Les Berkley