This Friday ECM New Series will release is its second full album of the Estonian vocal chamber ensemble Vox Clamantis, conducted by Artistic Director Jaan-Eik Tulve. As usual, Amazon.com is taking pre-orders for those wishing to receive this new recording as soon as possible. Entitled The Deer’s Cry, the album is devoted entirely to the music of Estonia’s best-known composer, Arvo Pärt. Vox Clamantis has been performing Pärt’s music since 1999, when the group performed Gregorian chant between the sections of his organ composition “Annum per Annum.” Plainchant was also the focus of their first New Series release, Filia Sion, although the album also included an intriguing example of fifteenth-century counterpoint by Piotr of Grudziądz (Petrus Wilhelmi de Grudencz). There was also a fascinating interpretation of the “Beata viscera” conductus by Pérotin (Magister Perotinus), a monophonic setting enhanced with the natural overtones of throat-singing technique.
Pärt’s relationship with New Series predates that with Vox Clamantis. Indeed, it goes all the way back to 1984, when Tablua Rasa, which showcased his work, marked the inauguration of New Series on the ECM label. That album was significant enough that ECM gave it a deluxe Special Edition re-issue at the end of 2010 in celebration of Pärt’s 75th birthday. More recently Vox Clamantis contributed to the Adam’s Lament New Series album, which was released in October 30, performing with the Sinfonietta Riga. That recording included a performance of “Alleluia-Tropus,” composed in 2008 and revised in 2010 for mixed choir and string orchestra. However, in 2008 Pärt also published a version for choir and “8 violoncellos (ad lib.)” (from the list of his works on the Universal Edition Web site). On the new The Deer’s Cry album, “ad lib.” means that the cellos are eliminated entirely; and the work is sung a cappella.
By this point the reader should be aware that Pärt is a composer for whom sonority is as significant as a faithful account of the notes. This is particularly true of an approach to composition that he calls “tintinnabuli,” which is Latin for “little bells.” These are pieces in which the sustained resonance of tones are as important as their points of attack. One might say that he uses voices to evoke a microcosm of the chiming of the large bells of a cathedral. This is best demonstrated on The Deer’s Cry by “Da pacem Domine;” but it is an effect that is best appreciated in spatial terms. Thus, for all the quality of the recording technique, one is more likely to appreciate just what Pärt had in mind through an actual performance. However, because such performances are not always easy to find, this recording is definitely one of the best viable alternatives. It is also an excellent introduction to another significant vocal technique, which is the use of very high-register tones from the soprano (often a single voice), soaring over the rest of the ensemble, almost as an evocation of divine oversight.
This new recording is also valuable for providing examples of Pärt’s other approaches to composition in languages that include English and German, as well as Latin. In addition, there are examples in which a small number of instruments add their voices to those of the choir, as well as instances of vocal solos. What pervades the album, though, is an overall sense of ritual with a greater diversity of approaches to celebrate that rite than one might expect. While one might think that this would make listening a rather solemn experience, Pärt’s spare approach to the use of resources actually makes it a highly intimate one. One gets the impression that Pärt’s personal approach to religion is one of intimate communion between the individual and the Divine. From that point of view, The Deer’s Cry stands as an album in which Pärt’s approach may be appreciated from a variety of different perspectives over the course of its thirteen selections.