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Arvo Part: Berliner Messe

March 6, 2012

arvo part berliner messeRoll: 8-6-12
Album: Elora Festival Singers and Orchestra: Arvo Pärt—Berliner Messe 

It’s not often I have the chance to refer to a piece of music as “glorious” and mean it literally. This is some of modern minimalist composer Arvo Pärt‘s best religious music written for the glory of God or Jesus or, possibly, the Holy Ghost. It’s all in Latin so I’m not sure exactly but I imagine it’s all three and it doesn’t really matter anyway. This music is meant to evoke a rapturous feeling of ecstatic lightness and though religious choral works aren’t particularly my cup of tea, it manages to break into the cold, withered cockles of my jaded heart and do so. Painfully beautiful in spots, Pärt displays mastery of the tonal trick of alleviating a keening sadness with moments of inspirational bliss.

That said, you’re either going to be in the mood for this kind of thing or you’re not. Clearly an inspiration for everything from Dead Can Dance‘s medieval revivalist work in the mid-80s to the Elvin themes in the score for the Lord of the Rings films, the selections here are just on this side of those egregious New Age of Medieval Chant type meditation CD’s. The dubious association could be due to how heavily Pärt draws from the well of 12th century German nun, Hildegard Von Bingen, whose works found a resurgence in popularity in the ’90s (after the Gregorian Chant craze of the ’80s began to subside) and were soon bastardized by candle shops worldwide.

Like Hildegard, and unlike most choral masses, Pärt’s minimalist approach is the saving grace here—the modern blended with the medieval in way that strengthens both. Even his other choral works for religious  settings are a little too reverently reverent and leave the cloying aftertaste of the pristinely divine.

But hold no illusions, unlike Pärt’s almost uniformly essential body of work for orchestras, string ensembles and piano, this is probably the only album of its kind you require in your collection.That is, if you require one at all in which case you might be better off with the Theatre of Voices De Profundis album instead (see below).

In fact, I’m questioning whether I myself require this in my collection. Listening to it for this review, it occurred to me the majority of the program is not something I would put on to listen to for pure enjoyment. But music doesn’t have to be purely for enjoyment and, take from this what you will, my partner and I have found uses for it on two occasions. One being background music while we played the board game Carcassonne and the other as the musical accompaniment for the backyard burial of our pet rat Willow.

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