Pärt: Berliner Mass (CD Review - Gramophone Magazine, 1998)

Arvo Part's music is about equilibrium and balance ‚ balance between consonance and dissonance, between converging voices and, in the context of a CD such as this, between the individual works programmed. Stephen Layton has chosen well, starting with the variegated Berliner Messe and closing with the starkly ritualistic De profundis, a memorable and ultimately dramatic setting of Psalm 130 for male voices, organ, bass drum and tam-tam, dedicated to Gottfried von Einem.

The Mass features two of Part's most powerful individual movements, a gently rocking ìVeni Sancte Spiritusî and a Credo which, as Meurig Bowen's unusually perceptive notes remind us, is in essence a major-key transformation of the better-known ‚ and more frequently recorded ‚ Summa. Everything here chimes to Part's tintinnabulation style, even the brief but fetching organ suite Annum per Annum, where the opening movement thunders an alarm then tapers to a gradual diminuendo, while the closing coda shoulders an equally well-calculated crescendo. The five movements in between are mostly quiet, whereas The Beatitudes flies back to its opening tonality on ìa flurry of quintuplet broken chordsî. It is also the one place that witnesses a momentary ‚ and minor ‚ blemish on the vocal line (at 2'08""), but otherwise Layton directs a fine sequence of warmly blended performances.

If you are new to Part's music, then this disc would provide an excellent starting-point. I would suggest playing the individually shaded Seven Magnificat Antiphons first, then tackling the Berliner Messe, followed, perhaps, by the Magnificat. Polyphony employ what one might roughly term an 'early music' singing style, being remarkably even in tone, largely free of vibrato and alive to phrasal inflexions. As to rival discs, none that I know of is significantly better performed; but as each Part programme is, in a sense, a concept in itself, I would recommend listening as widely as possible. I would also suggest experimenting with playing sequences: by so doing you will maximize the subtle differences between individual pieces.

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