The Humanity of Pärt's 'Pilgrim's Song'

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Oh, Arvo Pärt. Whether one is in the mood to parse a score's rigorous generative processes, or to buy a CD of medieval chillout from a shop that also sells essential oils and/or art with dolphins in it, he always fits the bill. 

So from the Sol LeWitt–like spareness of the intersecting lines of Summa, Pärt's early Credo setting, to the darker, denser textures of the title track (Ein Wallfahrtslied), there is not a piece of music on "Pilgrim's Song" the new all-Arvo disc from Estonia's Chamber Choir Voces Musicales—that could fail to allure the novice listener. But please be warned that this is coming from a Pärt fanboy.

These are great pieces but is this the recording they deserve? Well, they've already gotten the recordings they deserve. Elsewhere, producer Manfred Eicher and conductors like Paul Hillier and Tõnu Kaljuste have put out reverb-drenched discs so flawless that they sound like somebody managed to tape the platonic ideal of a choir rather than a collection of mortal voices.

This album is not flawless. You may notice the wavering of a voice, the creak of a chair, an intake of breath. These young singers are astonishingly precise in Pärt's unforgivingly exposed vocal writing but can't quite summon Old Testament gravity with the same ease as the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir.

Still, the humanness of "Pilgrim's Song" also creates an intimacy those desert island Pärt discs are missing. The sensitive young women of Voces Musicales bring Pärt's Magnificat a sweetness and pathos that lights the work from a gorgeous new angle. It helps that conductor Risto Joost brings out the most minute subtleties of each work while still understanding the difference between a meditation and a wallow.

True, if you listen to only one Arvo Pärt recording before you die, this shouldn't be it. Then again, if you listen to only one Arvo Pärt recording before you die, your life will have been the poorer for it, and you will have only yourself to blame.


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