Pärt: St John Passion
Within a canon of simplicity, quite independent of the durations of clock time, Arvo Pärt has written on both the small and large scale, but his grandest work remains Passio of 1982: an hour-long passion-setting taken from St John’s Gospel, for voices, an instrumental quartet of violin, oboe, cello and bassoon, plus organ. In contrast to shorter choral works such as the Seven Magnificat Antiphons, Passio has received few recordings, the benchmark being the first, that of the Hilliard Ensemble on ECM, a classic of its kind and a tough rival for Naxos to challenge with its third release to date of the composer’s music. Yet in Antony Pitts and Tonus Peregrinus a most dedicated team has been chosen for the task. An interesting feature of their project has been to define, with Pärt’s guidance, the precise length of silences between sections, one of those crucial details, perhaps beneath or beyond the threshold of awareness, that nonetheless helps to determine the distinctive mode of this composer’s tintinnabuli style. But the unremitting tonal and melodic content of Passio needs subtle dramatisation, something the Hilliard grasped as pioneer, and that others must find for themselves as part of the burden of interpretation. Singularity of this kind seems lacking in this otherwise fine performance in which the ensemble’s young singers and players do more than justice to the work. Ultimately, it may come down to price, but for closeness and colour of recorded sound, the Hilliard may well be worth the extra cost.