Helsinki Chamber Choir / Nils Schweckendiek

Pärt: Passio

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Pärt: Passio Review

by James Manheim

Arvo Pärt's Passio (1982), also known as the St. John Passion, is sometimes grouped with the large pieces of the time in which Pärt developed his tintinnabuli technique. The technique is present in the work, but Passio is unlike anything else Pärt ever wrote. Although broken up here into 11 tracks, it is an uninterrupted setting of the biblical St. John Passion text, and although it has the basic minimal harmonies familiar from Pärt's later works, it is rigorously systematized. The words of the biblical Evangelist are given to a vocal quartet, which may be introduced by a solo voice in one of several specified ways, accompanied by a quartet of violin, cello, oboe, and bassoon. The only other instrument is an organ. The soloists are a tenor for Pilate and a baritone for Jesus, and these are sharply distinguished by note duration. The chorus takes the words of the crowd and soldiers. The harmonies and tintinnabuli effects are likewise controlled by strict rules. Listeners may not be able to spell these rules out, but their effect is clearly audible; the setting is exceptionally meditative, with crystal-clear realization of the text. The closest comparison would be one of the a cappella Passion settings of Heinrich Schütz's old age in the 17th century. The Passio has rarely been recorded, and that's reason enough to welcome this reading by the Helsinki Chamber Choir. More reason is provided by the performers, who offer expressive interpretations with a fine sense of the functions of the many pauses in the music. This performance diverges somewhat from the stark version by Paul Hillier and the Hilliard Ensemble some years ago, and BIS' sound, from a Helsinki church, is warmer than that of ECM on the Hillier version, allowing in some ambient noise such as organ machinery. This is an extraordinary performance of an underrated work by one of the major composers of our time.

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