I will be the first to admit that I have not been a particular fan of the trend in contemporary choral music that partakes rather heavily of ancient methods--music like that of Pärt and John Tavener--and have tended to steer clear of them after a few exposures. I liked Pärt's 'St. John Passion' but felt it went on too long and was just a bit monochrome. I have also not been a big fan of trance music, of which some of this music seems to take part. But for some reason I have really responded positively to this release of choral music by Pärt. Perhaps it is because the performances are so wonderful. The Elora Festival Singers are a group made up of professional singers from Toronto, mostly from, I think, Toronto's well-known Mendelssohn Choir. I have been impressed with other recordings they have made and I suppose that's why I gave this CD a listen. Some, or even perhaps all, of these pieces have been recorded before, some several times, and some by such wonderful groups as the Hilliard Ensemble, the group that first recorded the 'St. John Passion.' Perhaps my positive response also has something to do with the fact that there are several shorter pieces here, pieces that one can easily imagine being performed as part of a church service, rather than an evening long work like the Passion. Amazon has not, as of the date of this review, listed the individual pieces included here. They are:
Cantate Domino Canticum Novum (Psalm 95) (1977, rev. 1996)
Berliner Messe (1990-91, rev. 1992)
De Profundis (1980)
The Beatitudes (1990, rev. 1991)
The largest piece here (23 minutes long) is the seven-movement 'Berliner Messe' which exists in several versions. The one here is for string orchestra and choir. The orchestral accompaniment is very spare (and very lovely) and, as with most of Pärt's choral music, the choir sings a kind of extended Gregorian chant with much unison singing but also with austere choral harmonies that often include added-note triadic chords. The effect is prayerful and serene. The 'Credo' is a rewriting of the earlier 'Summa,' which also appears here as a separate piece. In both the 'Credo' and the earlier 'Summa' there is a medieval-sounding etiolation of Lutheran chorale tunes. The 'Agnus Dei' is particularly haunting.
The setting of the 'Psalm 95' ('O sing unto the Lord a new song') is a simple chant-like setting for four-part chorus and organ with changing harmonies and spare organ accompaniment. 'De Profundis' ('Out of the depths I have called unto Thee') does indeed rise out of the depths, with tenors and basses intoning the main theme; quiet bass drum strokes and a recurring single tubular chime note against a wavering organ ostinato create an incantatory effect. 'The Beatitudes' and 'Magnificat' (the latter possibly the most performed of all of Pärt's choral pieces) are in like vein. The seven-minute 'Magnificat' alternates solo and choral sections and perhaps provides a bit more contrast than others of his works.
Although I have not heard other recordings of these pieces, I cannot praise too highly the limpid, lightly inflected, and reverent singing of the Elora Festival Singers, along with the excellent support of their partners, the Elora Festival Orchestra and organist Jürgen Petrenko, led by their conductor (and Elora founder) Noel Edison. This is music-making at the highest level.