Arvo Pärt: Stabat Mater. Gloriae Dei Cantores; Richard K. Pugsley, conductor. Gloriae Dei Cantores Recordings GDCD 065 (SACD). Total time: 69:02.
DIGITAL REVIEW — Since its founding in 1988, Gloriae Dei Cantores has amassed a wide repertoire in roughly 60 self-produced CDs. Included are Gregorian chant, Palestrina, Bach, Mozart, Brahms, Messiaen, and several American albums, so its recent release of six works by Arvo Pärt serves to broaden the Massachusetts-based choir’s repertoire and further elevate this astonishing Estonian composer to the mainstream.
For far too long, the music of the 85-year-old Pärt has been saddled with minimalist or sacred minimalist labels along with the likes of Górecki and Tavener.
But under Richard K. Pugsley ‘s direction, these choral works are
less focused on Pärt’s ear-numbing minimalist atmospherics and
more on religious fervor and near-operatic passion.
Not all of the CD’s six selections delve into these emotions, nor do they all follow Pärt’s theory of tintinnabuli, or bell harmonics, which he adopted after he abandoned the 12-tone serialism of his youth. Still, all but two of the works were composed in the early 21st century and reveal a composer who has found his maturity and performers who express it mightily.
The title piece, Stabat Mater, is also the earliest, composed in 1985. It defines Pärt’s evolving tintinnabuli style, its static harmonies and diatonic dissonances unfolding slowly and purposefully. The 20 verses are flanked by two Amens, the first of which is an instance of powerful grief and a singular moment on the CD. Pärt’s tintinnabuli in Magnificat, from 1989, built around triads, melodies, and panharmonics, produces chilling swells that resolve to a satisfying peace. Pugsley and Gloriae Dei Cantores avoid the acoustical distance of the Estonian Philharmonic Choir and the plainness of the Tallis Scholars, opting for a more fervent, at times visceral approach.
The ancient tale of the Abbot Agathon, who encounters a leper on his way to sell his goods at the market, is perhaps the most suitable work for Gloria Dei Cantores, and clearly the CD’s highlight. L’Abbé Agathon (2004, revised 2008) is a revelation for its operatic leanings, solo opportunities, and string interludes. The recording spotlights the focused and dramatic singing of soprano Rachel McKendree and corresponding angst exhibited by the Abbot, portrayed by Alexander Pugsley.
The 16 strings play a kind of narrative role, which is especially effective at the work’s end. As sopranos reach heavenly heights, the low strings counter with a soft low F-sharp triad, just when the Abbot realizes that the leper was an angel testing him.
A brief Psalm setting, Peace upon You, Jerusalem (2002), is scored for a cappella women’s voices, the choir’s singers settling softly in the prayerful text. Salve Regina, commissioned by Essen Cathedral in 2001, was originally scored for organ and four choirs placed around the church. This recording compensates with a fine mix and separation between organ and voice groups. The work, and the powerfully reverent Nunc dimittis (2001), encapsulate Pärt’s evolving style at the turn of the 21st century, with less adherence to pure theory than to pure expression.
Michael Huebner is a freelance writer based in Birmingham, Ala. He is a former classical music critic and fine arts reporter for the Birmingham News and AL.com. He also has written for the Kansas City Star and Austin American-Statesman.