The selections on this album of music by Estonian "holy minimalist" Arvo Pärt come from different phases of his career. One, the Solfeggio, dates from 1963, before Pärt abandoned serialism for his minimalist experiments; it was revised and simplified a good deal in 2008, however. The centerpiece (and finale), the Stabat Mater, was composed in 1985, and several of the shorter pieces date from the 2000s. The repertoire is divided between sacred choral pieces and short secular pieces of various kinds, all culminating in the giant, hypnotic, and virtually symmetrical Stabat Mater. Conductor Paul Hillier, who despite the profusion of new recordings of Pärt is still tough to beat, structures the program so as to use various ensembles: his own small group Theatre of Voices (also including an organ), the larger Ars Nova Copenhagen, and the NYYD Quartet. This tunes the ear to the subtle contrasts that are essential to Pärt's often almost static later music, and the whole therefore gathers in intensity as it proceeds. There aren't really any examples of Pärt's tintinnabulation (bell-like) texture, bringing home the degree to which he has purified and simplified his music even as he, like Western minimalists, has readmitted some aspects of functional harmony. The sacred a cappella pieces emerge as a kind of timeless chant, akin to but quite different from traditional forms of Orthodox chant, and the starkly simple secular pieces function as interludes. Sample the unique setting of the English-language traditional ballad My Heart's in the Highlands (track 6), where the vocal part consists only of a single note. The cumulative effect is powerful indeed, and the musicians are backed up by superb engineering from Harmonia Mundi. If you are interested in the development of Pärt's music over time, you could hardly do better than this release.
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AllMusic Review by James Manheim