WORKS: Stabat Mater for choir and string orchestra; Symphony No. 3; Cantique des degrès
PERFORMER: RIAS Chamber Choir; Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra/Kristjan Järvi
CATALOGUE NO: 88697723342
Pärt’s 75th birthday, on 11 September, is accompanied by a flurry of new releases. The comments I made in the September issue when reviewing the Analekta release (La Pieta/Angèle Dubeau) apply equally here: although the performances on these CDs are excellent, there is (leaving aside the premieres on the Järvi disc) nothing startlingly different from other recorded versions: nor could or should there be. Your choice is therefore likely to depend on the selection of works included on any particular disc.
In their own right, either of these discs could be warmly recommended, but they are up against extensive, impressive competition. Voces Musicales has specialised in early music, fitting it well for Pärt’s ‘mature period’, inspired by the great medieval and Renaissance figures. Both the choir and its members are relatively young, but sing with maturity and conviction.
With the Te Deum, the main work featured, they are going to be measured against the version on ECM (Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir/Tõnu Kaljuste) which must be acknowledged as the benchmark recording. If this performance does not eclipse that earlier one, it can certainly hold its head up in the same company.
There is an occasional and slight textural harshness in the upper voices of Voces Musicales, but it is certainly not obtrusive. Even the sound quality can be compared, not unfavourably, to ECM’s unsurpassed standards.
Two works show the choir at its peak: their reading of the sublime Nunc Dimittis is a match for versions on Harmonia Mundi (Hiller), Black Box (Owens) and Hyperion (Layton), while their Summa, available in more versions than you can shake a baton at, is one of the best.
The Sony disc contains the first recordings of revisions of Cantique des Degres (1999, revised 2002) and the ravishingly lovely Stabat Mater (1985), originally for three voices and violin, viola and cello, revised for three-part choir, violin and two violas da gamba, then revised again in 2008 for choir and orchestra, the version heard here.
The centrepiece of the disc, though, is the Third Symphony, challenging recordings by Järvi’s father, Neeme, with the Bamberg Symphony (BIS, 1989) and the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra (DG, 1999).
Pärt completed it in 1971, when he had moved on from his Modernist phase but was still five years away from unveiling his now-celebrated and popular ‘tintinnabulist’ style. It exhibits more mainstream-classical structural and developmental elements than he would subsequently use, and is not only a fascinating contrast with his later work, but an intriguing piece in its own right. Barry Witherden