February 2004

Arvo Pärt: De Profundis, Missa Sillabica, Solfeggio, "And One of the Phrarises," Cantate Domino, Summa, Seven Magnificat Antiphons, The Beatitudes, Magnificat
Theatre of Voices, Paul Hillier, director. Christopher Bowers-Broadbent, organ; Dan Kennedy, percussion.
Harmonia Mundi 8017182
Originally Released: 1996
SACD Released: 2003

by Rad Bennett

Musical Performance ****1/2
Recording Quality ****1/2
Overall Enjoyment ****1/2

Arvo Pärt is a contemporary composer who was born in Estonia and migrated to Berlin in 1980. In the mid 1970s he created a style of composition he called "tintinabuli," drawing on two age-old musical devices, the scale and the triad. The sounds in his music tend to be minimalist and "ring" in the mind long after they have actually gone, thus the stylistic handle. His music has been described as modal, and as Medieval. I think the latter categorization often fits. The remarkable thing about this composer’s music is that it can sound, in the very same instant, familiar and comfortable, fresh and invigorating.

De Profundis is the title piece here, a rich and dark composition for male chorus, organ, and percussion. It was written in 1980, as the composer was adjusting to life in Berlin. The Magnificat has proven one of Pärt’s most popular pieces. A work of serene character and lyricism, it is scored for unaccompanied chorus. Summa, from 1977, shares the quiet beauty of the Magnificat, though it is much shorter and compact in construction. Also from 1977, but revised in 1996, stands the Missa Sillabica, in which the music becomes total servant to the text. Even the pauses seem to naturally arise from the breathing pattern in reading the words.

This is remarkable music and it receives singular performances from the 22-voice choir. The singers have a unity of sound that reminds one of Robert Shaw’s crack ensembles, though the execution seems even more effortless. Rich tone and transparency meet and marry in these readings, and the texts are easily perceived and beautifully enunciated in a natural manner.

The recorded sound seems perfect to me. Recorded at the Chapel of St. Vincent’s School for Boys in San Rafael, and St. Stephens Church in Belvedere, both California, the audio never gets in the way of the music. The surround tracks subtly convey a sense of space without intruding on the front soundstage. Often voices seem to float in the air, as they do in a good church acoustic. The opening of the De Profundis, contrasting growling vocal basses with dulcet organ tones punctuated by drum beats, sets the tone to let one know this is a recording that will be entirely faithful to the music it serves. Everyone connected with this recording can be tremendously satisfied to know they have produced a very spiritual audio software title as close to perfection as possible in this technological world.