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With Litany, Estonian composer Arvo Pärt created one of his stirring works: a nearly 23-minute long composition for orchestra and vocal ensemble based upon the 24 prayers of St. John Chrysostom (one for each hour of the day). Commissioned for the 25th Oregon Bach Festival, the composition is both memorable and timeless. It finds influences in everything from chant to the repetition of modern minimalism. Play it loudly and the striking vocals of the Hilliard Ensemble simply soar against the strings of Tallinn Chamber Orchestra. The orchestral Trisagion harkens towards Litany's mood swings and impact, but--sans voice--lacks the mysticism. One of Part's best, and as sacred as modern compositions come. --Jason Verlinde
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"Litany" is an English-language setting of the 24 prayers of St. John Chrysostom for each hour of the day and night. Chrysostom's is one of the greatest litanies in Christianity and an example of the skill with words which gained him the epithet "Golden-Mouthed". With its continuous cycling between softer lulls and loud, proud entreaties the work might be best compared to Giya Kancheli's "Styx". The work is performed by the Tallin Chamber Orchestra with the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, conducted by Tonu Kaljuste. However, the four main vocal parts are performed by singers from the Hilliard Ensemble, native speakers of English who can really bring out a most euphonious rendition.
The latter two works on the disc are performed by the Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra conducted by Saulius Sondeckis. "Psalom", written in 1985 and dedicated to the music publisher Alfred Schlee, and revised in 1995 is a relatively brief instrumental appreciation of the Psalter. It is a pretty work, but brief and quickly forgotten after the following piece. "Trisagion" was written in 1992 for the 500-year anniversary of the parish of the Prophet Elias in Ilomantsi and revised in 1995. It is inspired by the Orthodox hymn of that name ("Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us."), but is purely instrumental. It requires great care and energy on the lower strings, and the orchestra pulls this off admirably.
I have criticized Part's work of the 1970's and 1980's as technically brilliant but spiritually dead, but in the 1990's, as he began using concrete concepts of his Orthodox faith instead of fuzzy and nebulous mentions of "spirituality", his oeuvre has approached the profound depths of Christian spirituality common to the work of Olivier Messiaen and Sofia Gubaidulina. This style culminated in his 1998 setting of the massive Kanon Pokajanen penitence text, though he subsequently seems to have moved on to yet another style.
Unfortunately ECM, as usual, gives us only about 50 minutes of music. It would be nice to have one more worked placed on the disc, since these releases aren't cheap. The liner notes are also somewhat disappointing, giving only details of the recording and the text of "Litany" with no biographical notes or musicological analysis.
While Part might be best approached through his tintinnabuli phase of the 1970s and 1980s, of which TABULA RASA (also on ECM) is a shining example, his work only got much better in the 1990's. This is a disc worth hearing for those who have already come to like Part's music, and anyone looking for powerfully Christian contemporary compositions.
Several striking passages are imprinted on my memory. The initial few minutes must be among Part’s most enticing openings. The music emerges from a shrouded place of mystery and, though the writing is mostly modal here, Part throws in a chromatic note that lends the melody an exotic – even an oriental – flavor that is absolutely striking. The modal writing is modified in a section about 6 minutes in, when Part inserts an assertive Bach-like flourish through a set of canonical entries in the orchestra, with the brass playing a big role. This is an atypical reference to Bach for Part, who looks to different points in the history of sacred music for inspiration, but it is a powerful one, adding to the tone of severity and mystery enshrouding the opening of “Litany.” I also was impressed by a transition passage about 11’ into “Litany” where the individual musicians each play a note or pair of notes in pointillist fashion until arriving at a big minor harmony. The lengthy final section manages to evoke a sense of momentum despite its slow-moving and sometimes static harmonies through the use of oscillating repeated note pairs in the orchestra, similar to tintinnabulating bells. This creates an arc moving “Litany” from shrouded and tragic stillness at the outset to a more turbulent but still very sacred and mystical conclusion.
This large-scale conception is married to interesting melodic writing and emotional power, making for an outstanding work in my opinion. Set to an English text, it is written for vocal soloists, chorus and orchestra and comes in at a bit over 20 minutes in this fine performance from conductor Tonu Kalljuste and the Estonian Philharmonic orchestra and choir, interpreters who have given us several very fine premiere recordings of Part in the past. They hold to their high standards and this performance is musical and technically accomplished.
A couple of years ago I would have confidently said that the “Tabula Rasa” concerto was Part’s marquee opus, but the quality of “Litany” has made me re-think that. If you’ve never listened to Part, “Litany” is a fine entrée that I think will be both striking and representative of his art.
The rest of the disc is a bit of a side-thought after “Litany.” The entire thing lasts under 45 minutes and the two orchestra pieces appended to the main event are below-average efforts from the Estonian artist, in my opinion. They are static minimalist orchestra pieces, here played well by the Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra conducted by Saulius Sondeckis. Peaceful and pretty in an unobtrusive way, they don’t have the same impact as “Litany” for me. All three works are the products of the early 1990s, so the disc represents a snapshot of Part’s writing then, with the “Litany” dating from 1994, “Trisagion” from 1992 and the “Psalom” revised in 1995 after being first drafted in 1985.
This is an outstanding Part disc due to “Litany.” Sound engineering is absolutely excellent, as you’d expect from the ECM New Series label. I love this disc and recommend it with warmth.