Kanon Pokajanen is a work of starkly radiant beauty, a deeply felt plea for forgiveness so resonant it seems to bear its own expiatory power. Over two years of intense quality time with the work, Part produced an 80-minute choral setting of the entire canon that mines each word of the original Church Slavonic for its maximum musicality and meaning.
Part believes language to be more important to a choral work than the music. In the liner notes, he explains that he wants each word “to find its own sound, to draw its own melodic line.” The result is a piece that moves slowly and deliberately through the canon, making ample use of the silences between the words.
Pärt said, “the words are very important to me, they define the music” and furthermore “the construction of the music is based on the construction of the text.”
The Eastern Orthodox canon, in general, is composed of nine odes (though in practice usually only eight are chanted, second ode is omitted owing to its severe nature). Each ode begins with an introductory verse called the eirmos which is followed by four verses called troparia all interspersed with antiphonal responses suited for the canon’s subject. The last troparion is referred to as the Theotokion, so-called because it is written in honor of the Theotokos (Mother of God). There are also intermezzo hymns which serve to encapsulate the canon’s theme.
Completed in 1997 in commemoration of the 750th anniversary of Cologne Cathedral, Kanon Pokajanen was premiered the following year by its dedicatees, Tõnu Kaljuste conducting the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, who also perform it in the ECM recording to humble perfection.
The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir is a treasure and handle every note as the holy relic that it is, passed down through the ages and translated in song so that others may touch it without degrading its surface. The altos in particular emit an outstanding richness of tone. The recording space is potently reverberant, drawing out every pause like a comet’s tail. Listening to this music, one comes to appreciate the choral qualities of Pärt’s instrumental pieces as well.