What price the Holy Spirit?

ARVO PART & J.S.BACH

Australian Chamber Orchestra

Hamer Hall

Sunday February 10

Estonian

                                               Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir

Starting out 2019 as it probably means to continue, the ACO under Richard Tognetti mounted a first program for its subscription series that stretched across the centuries, its main structural premise to put side by side works from two composers of religious music.  If you really stretch, you can find links between Bach and Part; when I say ‘you’, I mean it because I can’t see any grounds for comparison – not in terms of the mechanics of composition nor in the self-imposed aesthetic of both men.

Nevertheless, this event – playing to a pretty full Hamer Hall  –  succeeded conclusively on technical grounds, if none other.   The guest choir proved to be an exceptionally well-balanced ensemble, apart from a sporadically dominant soprano in Choir 1, with a fine tenor sextet and an appreciable difference in sound colour between the two groups during the Bach works.   It was impossible to take notes during the performance as the hall was plunged into darkness as soon as the music started; which struck me as odd, unnecessarily theatrical when the places for which most of these compositions were composed are usually blazing with light.

Having a firm association with their famous compatriot, the Estonian singers brought out the best in the two Part vocal scores: Da pacem, Domine,  and the Berliner Messe of 1990.  Like many of the composer’s works, the Da pacem shows few signs of harmonic adventure with several finely ground dissonances slightly disturbing the usual placid polyphonic carapace, mainly through supple triadic juxtapositions.  As a requiem for the Madrid train bombing victims of 2004, the short motet-like work is informed by familiar Part tropes, including a slow-moving-to-static pulse, isolated notes for the sopranos, and an atmosphere of ritualised mourning.  The choir sang it from in front of the ACO, before moving to their expected positions behind the instruments.

On this occasion, the version used was Part’s arrangement for voices and strings, which set the timbre field for the rest of the afternoon.   When the next work burst upon us, Bach’s Komm, Jesu, komm, the ACO strings doubled the vocal lines and did so for Singet dem Herrn, the four-part Lobet den Herrn, Der Geist hilft and also performed the Berlin Mass in Part’s post-premiere arrangement for voices and strings.

As for discrete works from the two forces, Tognetti took the ACO through Part’s Summa, later recycled as the Credo for his Mass and a transparent sample of the composer’s synchronising of an arpeggio/triad with a mode: stately, not leading anywhere and reminiscent of a conversation where all the sentences stay unfinished.   Following interval, the strings played the Toccata from Part’s Collage on B-A-C-H, the only one of the three movements that is scored for strings alone.   Not so much a toccata as a moto perpetuo satire on continuo homophony, this proved to be the program’s oddity for its pulsating rhythmic drive, as well as for having no connection with the spiritual referents of the other works performed.

Galina Grigorjeva’s In Paradisum gave the EPCC a solo spot and, although the piece would have gained from a space with an abundant echo, it slotted into these proceedings without much effort.  Almost inevitably, this slow-moving setting of the Requiem Mass’s final antiphon showed a predilection for Part’s commitment to triads and the common major chord, best exemplified in the three thrilling bursts of acclaim at the words Chorus Angelorum te suscipiant, even if moments like this show both composers’ debt to Rachmaninov.   But Grigorjeva’s writing is more pungent, especially in the use of 2nd intervals; while her employment of chords-plus-fluent melodic lines in combination suggests the senior writer, her setting style has more magniloquence to it.

I suppose the inclusion of Sculthorpe’s Djilele was meant to demonstrate Aboriginal spirituality through a semi-sophisticated Western compositional filter.  But it rather undercut the surrounding pieces because the fragment gives little more than atmosphere, suggesting the outback with as much subtlety as Chauvel’s film Jedda.  Timo-Veikko Valve made a mountain out of the opening cello solo but I missed the textural contributions of six winds and percussion appearing in the original arrangement that Sculthorpe organised for the ACO back in 1996.

You couldn’t take exception to the Mass as a liturgical construct.   Part kept his language sombre and open to the performers’ own choice of inflections with an inbuilt consistency  in language that complemented a necessary variety in both weight and vocal/instrumental combinations.   Yes, there are longueurs, like the mode employed for both Gloria and Credo which gives a chord or a two-voice interval to each syllable and simply forges ahead on a steady path, regardless of the textual content.   Compensating for this are some surprises with two fluid Alleluia settings that site the work as usable for Pentecost and a setting of that feast’s Sequence, Veni Sancte Spiritus, which suggests a slow medieval dance or conductus, albeit one where the metre changes from 3 to 4 beats in the bar with welcome regularity.

While the choral body came across very confidently in this four-part composition, Tognetti’s strings were a much less assertive presence; to such an extent that you might have thought that Part had confined his orchestra to supportive duties only, until you see in the score that many passages have welcome individual touches, including harmonics that in this performance failed to carry with anything like sufficient power.   The lack of weight, especially in the upper string ranks, meant that Part’s carefully disposed chords became attenuated, not the trenchant commentary intended.

At its core, this near-30-year-old Mass, even if a revenant from pre-Vatican II times, is perfectly serviceable as an ecumenical liturgical construct and serves as well as anything else in the catalogue to allow a fair summation of Part’s voice which can be direct enough for the intended purpose and isn’t consistently aiming for transcendence.   In some ways, the Estonian is an old-fashioned writer, utilising simple structures and patterns , suggesting a spiritual remoteness and the silence of meditation rather than the resonant jubilation of proximity to the divine.

With a new year comes a new format in the ACO’s program booklets; new to me, at least.  A short description of each work is provided but the bulk of the material comprises commentary and interview articles.   Amiel Courtin-Wilson , artist and film-maker, gives an appreciation of Part’s role in his mental life: an appealing encomium which stops just short of gushing.   Arab-Australian poet Omar Sakr offers a substantial piece that includes Tognetti’s views on Part and Bach, with the emphasis on the latter.  Finally, ACO librarian Bernard Rofe suggests some ways to approach the program and, in a small space, attempts to find common ground between the pieces being presented.

Much of the central article by Sakr makes invigorating reading, although you suspect that Tognetti is reaching to activate a muted shock button in his evaluation of Bach’s interpretation of the Lutheran zeitgeist.   He is quite right to point to a historical connection between the two composers featured in his program’s title but, given the scores themselves, surely this resolves into both men’s dedication to sacred music.  Even to those among us who are charitably disposed to fluffing up music-history pillows, Part and Bach operate in completely discrete arenas of thought, let alone action; that their metaphysical aspirations are close is probably worth debating but their lives, their musical practice, their creative personalities are as far apart as Josquin and Berio.

Obviously, the new booklet format must be welcomed for putting forward a welter of thoughts that continue to bemuse  both before and after the concerts themselves.  Perhaps this afternoon was – as I think – a mish-mash and not that convincing as a practical compendium of two musics; or possibly the applause that greeted both halves of this concert sees the enterprise differently, showing a more generous, accepting attitude from ACO followers.  What must be said – and I can’t say the same as frequently as I’d like  –  these two hours spent with the ACO and EPCC were unexpectedly fruitful and challenging.