Passio by Arvo Pärt : Paul Hillier’s recording

To the accompaniment of the wind buffeting the church of St Jude-on-the-Hill, London, the Hilliard Ensemble here solemnly perform what must surely be the bleakest, most ritualistic Passion to be composed since Heinrich Schutz’s settings of the mid seventeenth century. Never one to dress up his religious work in ostentatious garb, Arvo Part has selected the most severe, detached and economical musical style for this Passion according to St John. More a liturgical act than a concert piece, it makes no concessions whatever to modern conventions of Passion music. Stubbornly repetitive and monochrome, deliberately anti-dramatic and neutral, it achieves its extraordinary and noble effect through the simplest of means: measured recitative, piquant chanted choruses and the clear, bright timbres of a small instrumental ensemble. (Gramophone)

Passio Domini Nostri Jesu Christi secundum Joannem (The Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ According to John) is a passion setting by Arvo Pärt for solo baritone (Jesus), solo tenor (Pilate), solo vocal quartet (Evangelist), choir, violin, oboe, cello, bassoon and organ. The work lasts approximately 70 minutes and is a setting of the Latin text from the Gospel of John, chapters 18 and 19, plus a brief introduction and conclusion. The work was written in 1982 and represents the epitome of Pärt’s tintinnabuli method.

Arvo Pärt is a name already familiar to American record collectors, many of whom seem to have been drawn to his work because of its reliance on a radical austerity that rejects the tortured complexity of much contemporary music. Pärt was born in Estonia but is now an Austrian citizen living in Berlin. Passio is a starkly economical work, going back for its inspiration to medieval plainchant, which in pristine form is about as beautifully plain as music can be: voices in unison, no harmony and no precisely measured rhythms. Pärt’s Passio is said to be modeled on European plainsong’s Slavonic variant, but the floridly Byzantine influences of that ancient genre were difficult to detect.

Of the small handful of versions available on disc, this one by Paul Hillier is the first (recorded March 1988, St. Jude-on-the-Hill, London) and most definitive. A manifold approach to the recording is evident in every aspect, striking an ideal balance between intimacy and sheer vastness of sound. Some may be put off by a single long track that offers little respite for the overwhelmed listener, but the rewards that await us at the end far outweigh the patience required to get there.

Paul Hillier is somewhat of a Pärt expert, he wrote the Grove entry on the composer and has recorded several of his works, all done with exquisite attention to detail and striking just the right mood: austere and spiritual.

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