Risto Joost / Voces Musicales / Tallinn Sinfonietta

Arvo Pärt: Pilgrim's Song

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Precocious Estonian conductor Risto Joost organized the chamber choir Voces Musicales in 1999 while he and most of its members were in high school, and he continues as its director. The group has gone on to establish an impressive international career, and on this 2009 album, its first release, it distinguishes itself with the purity of its tone, the warmth and silkiness of its blend, and soulfulness and insight of its singing. The singers grew up in a generation and culture in which Arvo Pärt's music was already established as standard repertoire, and they sing it like they have it in their bones. Their chaste but ardent performance is well matched with that of the Tallinn Sinfonietta.

This album includes a mix of pieces written for chorus and pieces originally conceived for another medium. (Pärt is famous for creating or sanctioning arrangements of multiple versions of pieces; his catalog lists 16 arrangements for various instrumental configurations of his most popular work, Fratres, and a dozen of Spiegel im Spiegel.) Summa is most often performed by string orchestra, so it's good to hear it performed in its original a cappella choral incarnation, especially when it's sung as beautifully as it is here. Ein Wallfahrtslied (Pilgrim's Song) was originally written for two solo voices and string quartet and this version is scored for unison men's chorus and string orchestra. A counterintuitive setting of Psalm 121 (I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills), it does not express confidence in God's providence but is an anxious, doubt-ridden plea for help that fades away with as much uncertainty as it begins. Pärt's writing for string orchestra uncharacteristically pulses with post-Romantic angst, while the men intone the text on a single pitch that changes only a handful of times over the course of the piece. It's a strange but moving, haunting work that sticks in the memory. The 30-minute Te Deum, one of the composer's most frequently performed choral pieces, uses three choirs, prepared piano, and tape. Its slow unfolding and plangent vocal lines reminiscent of plainsong are more typical of the style usually associated with Pärt. The distinction between the three choirs is especially well differentiated in this performance, and the effect is dramatically radiant. The attractiveness of the repertoire and the quality of the performances make this an album that should appeal to Pärt's fans and would be a good introduction to listeners new to his work. The sound is clean and clear but warmly resonant.

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