In Praise of Arvo Part (ii)

Among the sacred works of the contemporary composer Arvo Part, the mighty Passio (1982), which sets to music the Vulgate text of St John’s narrative of Christ’s Passion, is the best known. It begins with a wall of sound in which the Chorus announces the topic of the work, and proceeds with other voices taking the parts of the Evangelist, Jesus (a dignified bass), and Pilate (a poignant, frail tenor). The interplay between the voices is moving, with the typically Partian spareness being enlivened by the noisy and raucous clamorings of the Chorus, often accompanied by a deep organ. Jesus’ final words, ‘Consumatum est’, are sung with successively lower notes, and the final words of the Chorus recall the opening, although enlivened with a dash of hope. Listeners to recordings may succumb to languors, and it is certainly one of those works better heard live. I shall never forget one electrifying performance.

More recent compositions show Part’s style developing in a more jaunty, occasionally buoyant direction. Singers tell me that the short Bogoroditse Djevo (1990) is hard to perform, and it is certainly needs to be taken at a run, but it has an exhilarating feel (this is one of his few works for the liturgy of the Orthodox Church, to which he is a convert.) Dopo la vittoria (1996/98) is a thoroughly joyous piece setting to music a text made up of quotation within quotation; the central, innermost sections are occasions for beautiful climaxes in the singing. A piece in English, Which was the son of…(2000) sets to music the genealogy of Christ that occurs on St Luke’s Gospel, not the most promising material for music, but it works, and here too, as in Dopo la vittoria, key sections trigger rich climaxes. While Part has remained true to his initial impulses, much of his recent work is far more tuneful and has elements of joy. One hopes that this has been true of his personal life.

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