Pärt: Triodion (CD Review - Choir and Organ, 2003)

I had never been to Venice before this summer, and the relentless beauty of the place overwhelmed me. This new CD, too, is relentlessly beautiful: just as one palazzo follows another on the Grand Canal, so here one polished gem succeeds another in performances of an intensity that raises the hair on the nape of the neck. I haven't heard a choral recording to beat it in years.

Stephen Layton and Polyphony have recorded Part for Hyperion before, concentrating on music written in 1988-91: the Berliner Messe, The Beatitudes (his first setting of a text in English), Annum per annum for organ, Magnificat, Sieben Magnificat-Antiphonen and De Profundis. Those relatively well known pieces had attracted the attention of a number of other choirs on CD. On this new disc, by contrast, six of the eight works, most of them a cappella, receive their first recordings and show Part's harmonic idiom expanding beyond the restrictive, triadic 'tintinnabulist' style that characterised the works from the mid-1970s onwards that marked his escape from the creative impasse that had been troubling him.

Dopo la vittoria was commissioned to celebrate the 1,600th anniversary of the death of St Ambrose, who is supposed to have written the text of the Te Deum. Part, who had already written a Te Deum in 1984-85, initially thought he would have to write another. But by chance he found, and had translated into Italian, a Russian account from 1902 of Ambrose's baptism of St Augustine, who joined with Ambrose in the antiphonal singing of the Te Deum (all this is explained in Meurig Bowen's excellent notes). Part's music takes its cue from this story, with the opening line hocketing cheerfully between registers before opening out for a rich, chordal intonation of the words 'Te Deum'. The text conditions the further sectional contrasts which end in grandly ringing chords of 'Amen' before the jolly opening phrases come dancing back. The Nunc dimittis of 1989, though, is conceived as a single span: it rises slowly from a pianissimo opening to a series of searingly passionate chords, the word 'lumen' sparking a sunburst from the choir which sinks down again, and an exchange of 'Amens' rocks between the voices like a lullaby. Polyphony sang these works last year in a concert in Temple Church, London (where the recording was made in January this year), and the work which astonished me most on that occasion was... which was the Son of..., composed in 2000. I don't know of another composer who noticed before Part that the passage from St Luke (3: 23-38) tracing Jesus's ancestry back to Adam and thus to God is an obvious candidate for musical treatment. Meurig Bowen surmises that 'to some composers, indeed, this long list of names might seem no more enticing to set than the proverbial telephone directory'. But that's the whole point, as Bowen soon concedes: the ritual stability of the text allows Part to play with an entire arsenal of harmonies, some of them resolving with gratifying predictability, others heading in directions that still surprise even after the music has become familiar. And the whole thing swings with the upbeat rhythmic enthusiasm and confident humour of a revivalist hymn.

The expansive I am the true vine, a 1996 setting of John 15: 1-14 composed for the 900th anniversary of the founding of Norwich Cathedral, is calmly contemplative; what keeps the ear on the qui vive is a constant shifting of the register in the course of the line: a line from the basses suddenly shoots up to the high trebles or plunges in the opposite direction, with rhythmic variety set between pedal points at either end of the texture - Part paints a vine on the page, although the idea is disguised by the exquisite loveliness of its sonic realisation.

The Littlemore Tractus of 2001 sets part of an 1843 sermon by John Henry (later Cardinal) Newman and marks his centenary. It could hardly be less like Newman's better known musical monument, The Dream of Gerontius (which, apparently, Part doesn't know): a rocking figure in the organ, played here by Christopher Bowers-Broadbent, underpins unhurried choral homophony. Triodion, another commission (in 1998, for the 150th anniversary of the foundation of Lancing College), sets three odes from the Orthodox Prayer Book. The music is spare and solemn, the text intoned with hieratic intensity as each ode rises to, and recedes from, a climax, followed by hesitant pp imprecation.

Textural contrast comes with a setting of Burns's My Heart's in the Highlands, written in 2000 'as a small present for my beloved David James' of the Hilliard Ensemble, who sings it here to organ accompaniment. Compared to the catchy romantic Schwung of Schumann's setting ('Hochlanders Abschied', no.13 of Myrthen, Op.25), Part's is severe indeed - Bowen points out that the organ part 'is strictly "tintinnabulist", with its stepwise bass and triadic upper line'; the vocal line is likewise confined to an F minor triad.

The closing Salve Regina, for chorus and organ, marked the 1,150th anniversary of the city of Essen in 2002. It is another arch shape, building like a slowly expanding hymn to a powerful climax. It is less individual than the other works here and does suggest a degree of automaticism on Part's part - which doesn't stop it being attractive.

The inside front cover of the booklet bears a picture of Part in a set of headphones, with a broad grin on his face and his hands open before him as if to indicate: 'I can hardly believe it'. As well he might not - it's a well nigh faultless production. I noticed one slightly hesitant entry from the tenors (in the Littlemore Tractus) and that was about all. Intonation, balance, rhythm - it's all perfect. The recording is of demonstration quality, too. This is something special.

Martin Anderson

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