Pärt Kanon pokajanen
Kanon pokajanen is music of transition, best heard at break of day or at eventide. The prompting ‘canon or repentance’ appears in the earliest Church Slavonic manuscripts and Arvo Part’s 83-minute a cappella masterpiece (such as I believe it is) divides into eight ‘Odes’, with “Kontakion” and “Ekos” – both of them fairly brief – at the start of the second CD. Those who would rather sample first are directed to the concluding “Prayer after the Canon” (disc 2, track 6), the work’s longest – and possibly most beautiful – movement. The “Prayer” opens among small groups of voices answering one another, then embraces the full choir before fading to a serene close. The text implores Christ to effect a sweetening of the Soul, whereas the preceding Odes alternate bitter contrition with gentle entreaties for mercy.
The structure is, by Part’s own admission, based on ‘the word’. “I wanted the word to be able to find its own sound,” he writes in a unique but brief insert-note, “… to draw its own melodic line.” After a radiant celebration of the Israelites’ triumph over Pharaoh, Kanon continues with a quietly pulsing “Have Mercy on me, O God”, darkens for a chant-like lament of the burdened sinner, has the “Mercy” motif return, graduates to the higher voices for more repentance, proclaims “Glory to the Father”, sees the male singers return for “bitter weeping” and, after another brief response, closes in the treble for a prayer to “The Most Pure Mother of God”. That, roughly speaking, is the pattern for all eight Odes: a prayer-stanza, a plea for mercy, another prayer-stanza, and so on. “One lets the language ‘create the music’”, as Part himself says, which means, ultimately, that harmonies, shades and colours, most of them derived from ancient modes, lend expressive weight to what is, after all, a fairly austere textual context.
Viewed with hindsight, Kanon pokajanen recalls the tintinnabulation of Part’s recent creative past, but on a grand scale: here the repeated segments are larger, more widely spaced, more subtly varied. The text is crucial, and the process of following it in translation essential for a full appreciation of how Part feels and experiences the Kanon’s meaning. Of course, one also has the ‘soft option’ of letting Kanon pokajanen waft thoughtlessly into the ether (the glorious singing of the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir suggests ethereal weightlessness), but I wouldn’t recommend it. Part’s profound marriage of word, music and spirit sits at the very apex of the current religio-musical revival, and deserves some measure of our attention in payment for the two years it took to complete. The recording is faultless.'