Arvo Pärt’s Passio is a shining beacon among countless late-20th century religious works that confronted the formidable prospect of a new millennium. But while this 70-odd-minute masterpiece still emerges as the fresh if ascetic phenomenon that we first discovered in the late ’80s a whole host of lesser compositions from the same period have vanished into oblivion. My guess is that posterity is saving this one for good.
Put briefly, Passio sets St John’s gospel to a simple but powerful triadic musical language, its prescribed forces limited to a small chorus, a handful of solo voices and a chamber-size instrumental line-up consisting of organ, violin, oboe, cello and bassoon. Pärt treats the text as paramount and yet there is scarcely a hint of word painting in the accepted sense of the term. Spiritual underlining, yes, with telling support from the solo instruments. There are no written dynamics save for the opening, marked Langsam and forte, and the close, a Largo that blossoms from pianissimo to triple forte. Which doesn’t mean that the singers are expected to deliver monotonously uninflected lines. Thankfully, none of them does.
Silence is among Passio’s essential musical properties and this particular recording takes heed of ‘the composer’s recent clarification’ on how those silences should be gauged. I wasn’t entirely convinced by the elongated pauses at the very end of the work, or maybe it’s more a case of getting used to them. Tonus Peregrinus shape phrases with a certain degree of freedom, just as the Hilliard Ensemble and the Candomino Choir had done before them. The score’s suggested duration is around 75 minutes, which the Hilliard Ensemble fall short of by just four minutes and the two later versions, including this one, by nearer a quarter of an hour. Tempo is less of the essence here than an ability to keep lines lively and fluid, blending or clarifying as the text dictates, and in that respect alone Antony Pitts comes up trumps. His is an excellent reading, always alert to Pärt’s shifting harmonic plane and with consistently fresh voices, the women especially. Robert Macdonald’s ‘inward’ portrayal of Jesus is in my view preferable to the vocally commanding but inappropriately operatic Jorma Hynninen on Finlandia, though the Hilliards’ Michael George remains the most impressive of all. And if the rival instrumentalists have the edge, Pitts’s group is more than adequate.
Naxos have created a fine aural frame, though I was occasionally distracted by what sound like edits spliced too close to the note (try around 3'57" into track 1). On the other hand, it could, I suppose, be a trick of the acoustic of the Abbey Church of St Peter & St Paul, Dorchester-on-Thames. These things do happen.
Viewed overall, Tonus Peregrinus and Naxos have done Pärt proud. If this is your first Passio, rest assured that all the essentials are there. And if you want a top-grade specimen of quality music from the past 40 years, you won’t find better. Passio truly is a wonderful work.