FRIDAY 10 March 2017, 8pm
ST MARY'S CATHEDRAL, SYDNEY
SONG COMPANY // ST MARY'S CATHEDRAL CHOIR // OMEGA ENSEMBLE
SUSANNAH LAWERGREN | ANNA FRASER | RICHARD BLACK | MARK DONNELLY
VIOLIN VERONIQUE SERRET | OBOE NGAIRE DE KORTE | CELLO PAUL STENDER | BASSOON BEN HOADLEY
Arvo Pärt's setting of the St John Passion is a mesmerizing minimalist masterpiece. With the most concentrated of musical means Pärt communicates the depth and universal spirituality of the Passion story.
What gave Arvo Pärt iconic status in the late 20th Century, and now promises his own page and possibly chapter in the history of Western music, is his completely new way of writing music. Born near Tallinn in Estonia in 1935, and subsequently living under Soviet occupation, Arvo Pärt listened to as much music from the outside world as he could – both as a radio listener and later as a recording engineer for Estonian Radio. He became the first Estonian composer to apply the serial technique, and consequently had his first taste of official disapproval from the musical authorities. At the end of the 1960s his piece Credo was banned across the Soviet Union, this time for the text rather than the music.
After Credo Pärt spent several publicly fallow years sifting through layers of musical history, all the time seeking the essence of musical expression. His digging away uncovered two principles behind the simplest of shapes and forms: firstly that a single note – however innocuous on the page – contains a virtually unlimited richness of overtone combinations and acoustic reflections in performance; secondly that the basic triad (which in its major form radiates so intensely from the natural harmonic series) is the context for all melodic development, whether sounded or not. In other words: the two – the foreground and the background – are one. These two discoveries were first demonstrated in the piano miniature For Alina (1976): one voice moves by step from and towards a central note, first up then down, and the other voice articulates the three notes of a triad. Pärt formalised this technique and gave it the name of tintinnabuli – “little bells” – after the bell-like sounds of the triad.
The music of Arvo Pärt shimmers like the surface of the sea in sunlight: there is almost infinite and unpredictable detail, all produced by one sea rocked by the interface of aerial and underwater currents and one sun unyielding in its heavenly gaze. “Tintinnabuli is the mathematically exact connection from one line to another... ...tintinnabuli is the rule where the melody and the accompaniment [accompanying voice]...is one. One plus one, it is one – it is not two. This is the secret of this technique.”
Passio Domini Nostri Jesu Christi secundum Joannem, or Passio for short, divides the text of the St John Passion into a narrative, sung by the Evangelist Quartet with accompanying instrumental quartet, and spoken interjections by Jesus, Pilate and all the other characters including the crowd, sung by the soloists and chorus with organ. Rather like Brighton rock, the character of Pärt’s music in general and of Passio in particular is stamped throughout, and yet the different episodes in the narrative vary enormously in emotional intensity and acoustic texture.
Antony Pitts, Artistic Director of The Song Company and conductor of this performance, first came into personal contact with Arvo Pärt in 1996 when asking to interview him for the BBC. Pärt ended up agreeing that instead of talking he should play his first public tintinnabuli piece For Alina – apparently his recording debut as a pianist! When it came to making a recording of Passio with TONUS PEREGRINUS for Naxos the composer revised his tintinnabuli rules about the length of the silent bars between sections – the pauses are just as much part of the music.
"I have discovered that it is enough when a single note is beautifully played. This one note, or a silent beat, or a moment of silence, comforts me." (Arvo Pärt)