CD Review: Two very different ways of marking Good Friday with choral music

Arvo Pärt, Creator Spiritus (Harmonia Mundi)

Anyone can do a lot with a lot, but few are the people who manage to make something monumental and memorable from very little. Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, now 76, is one of those alchemists. With each passing year, it seems like he needs fewer and fewer notes to weave his slow-moving, meditative, mesmerizing pieces of music.

Conductor Paul Hillier has assembled 10 works by Pärt — choral settings of devotional texts interspersed with instrumental meditations. The anchor piece is not Creator Spiritus, which opens the disc, but a setting of the Stabat Mater, the searing 14th century sacred poem that evokes the scene of Mary watching her son Jesus dying on the cross on Good Friday.

Small, repeated melodic figures and long, sliding dissonances have a hypnotic effect, especially when performed as beautifully and cleanly as at the hands of Hillier’s Theatre of Voices and Ars Nova Copenhagen.

This is music that speaks to today, yet somehow manages to also sound absolutely timeless.

Here’s a link to a listen of “Morning Star,” from the album.

You can find more information at the Harmonia Mundi website.

And here is an earlier recording of Pärt’s 1985 setting of Stabat Mater, which has already become a modern classic. I think this is the original, 1987, recording by the Hilliard Ensemble:

Graupner, The Seven Words of Christ on the Cross (Analekta)

The world-premiere recording of a significant choral work by Christoph Graupner (1683-1760), a great, prolific, yet largely forgotten German contemporary of J.S. Bach’s, should be cause for rejoicing. But this 2-CD set merely serves as another reminder of how much richer, deeper and more entrancing was — and is — the music of Bach, compared to that of his contemporaries.

Montrealer Geneviève Soly, who has made it one of her life’s goals to reintroduce the world to Graupner’s compositions, celebrates the 25th anniversary of her period-performance ensemble, Les idées heureuses, with this album.

The finely nuanced, delictely balanced, carefully expressed musicianship here is remarkable, especially considering there are only four singers and 10 members in the orchestra, including Soly at the organ.

The disappointment is in this 1743 cantata, written for Good Friday devotions at the private chapel of Graupner’s patron in Darmstadt, and then put away, never to be heard again until Soly extracted it from the castle’s library and presented the work in Montreal seven years ago.

Graupner is experimenting with a style that’s less Baroque — i.e. less contrapuntal. He relies more on melody and its ornamentation. It’s a pretty musical style that anticipates Haydn and Mozart, but it lacks the deep bite of the works that came before, from Bach and, even earlier, Heinrich Schütz and Hermann Schein.

Rather, we hear a strangely homogenized and pasteurized musical setting of the Seven Last Words, rendered in small watercolours rather than deep, haunting, larger-than-life oils.

For disc details, click here.

John Terauds


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