The Secret Chords that Arvo Pärt Plays to Please Someone (if Not the Lord)

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With a relationship that extends beyond artistic collaboration and goes firmly into friendship, each Paul Hillier and Arvo Pärt recording is a reason to let out a praise-worthy “hallelujah,” even if such ebullient exclamations are anathema to Pärt’s Baltic brand of introspectively limned melodic lines.

And when it comes to such stock, this disc—spanning over two decades of the composer’s career—shows how expertly Pärt deals in such subliminal messaging. Texts from the Medieval period and based on Gregorian musicality get a millennial makeover with a touch of Soviet-era cynicism cloaked under plaintive yearning and purgative expression. It’s religion for the 21st Century; as encapsulatory of our sacred and secular lives as Bach was to his own times, with an equal amount of challenges (in his own time, Bach often came to blows with religious leaders for writing works “too modern” for worship).

The album opens with one of the more recent works included, 2006’s Veni Creator, a piece that breaks through with Vermeerian beams of light here and there, illuminating a richly dark and textured sonic still-life. Take that against 1985’s Stabat Mater, a 26-minute work that closes the album, and you get a full spectrum of emotions both reassuring and unsettling. Whether they’re tears of happiness or sadness, Pärt’s main concern is the salty ocular water itself. Even a tune like Peace Upon You, Jerusalem, opening with the words “I rejoiced” has a cool emotional restraint in the singers’ expression, which in a way tests the listener as to how their own emotional response will come through.

Which isn’t to say that you can’t simply sit back and allow Pärt to wash over you without going through an intellectually and histrionically rigorous course of calisthenics. Hillier ensures this, weaving sublime musical performances out of his two ensembles—Ars Nova Copenhagen and Theatre of Voices—together with instrumental appearances by the NYYD Quartet (who demonstrate vocal inclinations on tracks like Psalom) and organist Christopher Bowers-Broadbent. Minimally inclined though Pärt may be, this collection ensures maximum, ecstatic effect.