Pärt I Am the True Vine
Put on the opening seconds of Bogoroditse Djevo ('Rejoice, O Mother of God') - a King's College Choir Commission from 1990 (not 1992 as the booklet claims) - and I challenge anyone who doesn't already know the piece to guess the composer. The tempo is fast, the mood exultant and the tonal colouring decidedly folk-like. What follows is hardly less unexpected, an English setting (one of three in this fine programme) of John chapter 15 verses 1-14, where Jesus likens himself to 'the true vine', and commands his followers to love one another. Here the writing, although subscribing to the tintinnabulation of Part's familiar mature style, covers an especially wide vocal range, and the word-painting is masterly. At 3'51'', where Jesus says 'If you abide in me, and my words abide in you ... ' Part sets up a bass pedal, then, with ' ... ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you' he cues an exquisite blending of lines, sailing his sopranos above his basses.
I am the True Vine was composed in 1996 for the 900th anniversary of Norwich Cathedral, whereas Tribute to Caesar and The Woman with the Alabaster Box were, as the booklet tells us, commissioned in 1997 for the 350th Anniversary of the Karlstad Diocese in Sweden. Both works bear witness to a widened expressive vocabulary and, like I am the True Vine, take their creative nourishment from the power of words. Note, in The Woman with the Alabaster Box, the mysterious harmonic computations of 'an alabaster box of very precious ointment' (from 0'43''), and the humbling impact of Jesus's critical response to his uncomprehending disciples. In Tribute to Caesar Part's setting of the question 'is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar, or not?' faces a stark parallel when the chorus identifies the superscription on the penny as Caesar's.
The remaining items can also be heard, in one form or another, on alternative recordings. Hillier's reading of the beautiful Ninth Ode from Kanon pokajanen is slower by some two minutes than Tonu Kaljuste's premiere recording of the parent work on ECM (an absolute must for Part devotees), which is surprising given the less reverberant acoustic on the new CD. Both here and in the Berliner Messe, ECM's sound-frame suggests greater space and tonal weight, though this latest production is equally effective in its own quite different way. Part's 'revision' of the Messe is an update of his original score (which is warmly represented in its full-choir guise on Hyperion). In a second version (the one featured on ECM), the organ part was replaced by a string orchestra, whereas a third version (the one offered here) features an organ revision of the string score. Comparing Hillier's vocal quartet recording with Kaljuste's string version with choir finds me more inclined towards the silvery organ registrations in the Credo and depth of organ tone in the Agnus Dei. As for the rest, there's sufficient contrast between the two to warrant owning - or at least hearing - both.
With fine sound quality, first-rate singing (from both the Pro Arte Singers and Theatre of Voices) and concisely worded annotation (by Paul Hillier) this should prove a popular, indeed an essential, addition to Arvo Part's ever-growing discography.'