Classical Music Review: New Releases

Arvo Pärt - Kanon Pokajanen. California Bach Society, Warren Stewart, conductor and music director. St. Gregory Nyssen Church, San Francisco. November 2, 2003.

Spirituality has been a buzzword in America for at least a decade. But what does it really mean in arguably the most materialistic society on the face of the earth? Week-end meditation retreats, New Age spas, workshops on forgiveness, a steady diet of self-help books on being whole and living the good life? Or does it really come down to loving thy neighbor as thyself, assuming, of course, that one loves oneself in more than a narcissistic, navel-gazing way? ( Just look around ). Spirituality or what it means to live unselfishly in a determindedly selfish world has perplexed religions for millennia, and not just the three monothestic ones -- Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. And a direct contact with and transformation of Christian scriptural texts has been an abiding personal and compositional concern of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt for the last thirty years. He's also become the sprirituality composer of choice for many in America. And though the words he sets are often full of the Christian "virtues" of self-abnegation and guilt, his resultant music, though not exactly worldly, does have its sonorous charms.

 This is something of an oxymoron given the austerity of Pärt's method. But the composer's true believer status as a member of the Russian Orthodox faith helps him mine the myriad beauties in the words of the Kanon Pokajanen (Canon of Repentance), which tradition ascribes to Andrew of Crete (c.660 - 740). And while his setting of the entire text, which took about an hour and twenty minutes in this performance, scores high points for sobriety, it was a strangely eventful time span, comparable to hearing twelve interrelated ikons as one subtly contrasted yet deeply emotive series of sound panels. It was an amazing experience, and not dissimilar to that produced by Perotin's even more austere organa written for the acoustic properties of the chapel of Paris' Notre Dame. The California Bach Society and their conductor Warren Stewart faced daunting challenges -- the text is in Old Church Slavonic -- with its issues of diction, as well as of projection, and the ancillary ones of timbre, tonal blend, and an acute sensitivity to the piece's unique harmonic and rhythmic color. Pärt doesn't make it easy on the performer. But if your subject is as cosmic as the one he's undertaken here, which is nothing less than an exploration of the borders between day and night; the Old Testament and the New; Adam and the new Adam, Christ; and sin and salvation, you'd better get it right. This is easily one of Pärt's greatest pieces -- not all of them are despite the fervent publicity expended on some of them -- and it fascinates both ear and heart.

But Pärt wisely never neglects the human drama implicit in the Kanon, which is really about the soul's progression to grace. And neither did Verdi, Faure, Brahms, or Glass, in their requiems. "Ode I", for example, which starts with SATB chorus in parallel motion, becomes increasingly intimate in texture -- baritones and basses rock back and forth in verse two, sopranos and tenors, very bare, in verse three, basses and altos thicker in the next one, and an even darker color is achieved in the eirmos or antiphon -- " Both now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen." -- and the concluding fifth verse -- "Most pure Mother of God, look upon me" -- is appropriately smooth and hushed, with a final floated cadence. Other sections are just as beautifully laid out -- "Ode III" opens in a full-out grand, and very dramatic way, with chromatic suspensions much later, as well as a slow ascending line, and a significant drone on "King" (Tsaryu), which lasts till the end of the verse. Pärt also sometimes writes against the words, as at the beginning of "Ode VI" -- "Beholding the sea of life / Surging with the tempest of temptations" which isn't the least bit melodramatic, but stunningly calm. And though I'm not versed in the nuances of the Othodox Church's Znameny chant, Pärt has undoubtedly set and transformed it in deeply personal way. His Kanon, which he composed over a two-year period ending in 1997, and premiered the next year at Cologne Cathedral to celebrate its 750th anniversary, has deeply symbolic roots too. It's sung as part of the morning office, when dark yields to light, as a powerful and mythic mirroring of the soul's journey between and through these two points.

The California Bach Society, under Stewart's careful yet firm direction, made the ultra sombre Kanon feel as if were lit from within, which is quite an achievement given Pärt's circumscribed compositional plan which never goes in for cheap or easy effects. Stewart, in his pre-concert lecture, noted how Pärt eschewed such worldly devices as dance time, with which Haydn and Mozart seduced their listeners in their sacred yet far more in-the-world pieces. Still I didn't feel as if Pärt was forcing me to wear a hairshirt, or that he was somehow flogging me into submission. The only drawback here were the acoustics of St Gregory's choir space, which lacked a certain resonant warmth, produced a certain harshness especially in the massed unisons, and mitigated against the Kanon's achieving its full sonorous splendor.

Michael McDonagh
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