Estonian composer Arvo Pärt and the a cappella group Vox Clamantis have enjoyed a cozy relationship. It’s not that each has a monopoly over the other, but reading through the press release and liner notes of Arvo Pärt: The Deer’s Cry can give one the impression that this album’s sessions had the atmosphere of a dinner party or a family reunion. Ensemble leader Jaan-Eik Tulve seems to enjoy a symbiotic relationship with the composer, accepting a piece specifically written for his group while talking Pärt into not throwing out another composition (subsequently rewritten). This particular release also features premiere recordings of two other pieces in addition to “Da Pacem Domine” and “Alleluia-Tropus” (the latter recorded by Vox Clamantis in 2012). With pictures of Pärt attending rehearsals and recording sessions in Tallinn Transfiguration Church, it’s not difficult to imagine a lot of back scratching going on here.
Vox Clamantis is a Gregorian chant-minded group, a trait that appealed to some of Pärt’s choral sensibilities. One doesn’t hear a great deal or harmony when listening to early chant, thereby making it an ideal practice device for achieving vocal blend. When many voices—in this case, 17—are able to move effortlessly as one unit, then the harmonies and polyphony can come out to play. Through Vox Clamantis’s expertise in this area, Pärt is able to find a perfect compositional place for himself where classical minimalism and a slightly more advanced form of chant can intersect. From there, the music reaches full bloom, so the material on Arvo Pärt: The Deer’s Cry will interest fans of traditionally-minded modern choral music as well as those who purchase ECM releases based on reputation. Yet, reaching beyond those borders will be a task for the listener and not the performers or the composer; they already did their parts (the hard parts).
The texts of the pieces are sung in various languages, including English and Cyrillic. The title track repeats a very insistent mantra of “Christ with me” while “Von Angesicht zu Angesicht”, a translation of a passages from 1 Corinthians, gives a portion of the spotlight to the 7-piece chamber ensemble combining strings and organ with a woodwind. Elsewhere, “Alleluia-Tropus”, the piece that Pärt wrote specifically for Vox Clamantis, shifts the listener’s attention back to all 17 voices as they roll fresh and familiar elements into a holy minimal sound. “Virgencita” was the piece that Tulve and Vox Clamantis were able to talk Pärtinto into salvaging after the composer was convinced he should axe it from the program. It’s hard to imagine what would have held it back before since it seems to blend into the rest of the CD with no signs of struggle. Pärt appears to have broken from stubborn chant form most when writing both the John Taverner-esque “Most Holy Mother of God” and the softly polyphonic 13-minute closer “Gebet na dem Kanon”.
Arvo Pärt: The Deer’s Cry is a delicate album, but it comes with a prerequisite amount of warmth to sustain one’s interest. Arvo Pärt and Vox Clamantis may not be barreling ahead towards a radical future for choral music, but they aren’t lollygagging in the past, either. As far as holding patterns go, this one sounds exquisite.