Stephen Layton and Polyphony have a long and fruitful relationship with the music of Arvo Pärt. Their recording of Triodion and other choral works (CDA67375) won a Gramophone Award and became a cult classic. The extraordinary purity of Polyphony’s singing is the perfect vehicle for music of such clean, elemental simplicity, such cathartic calm. This third Pärt album from Stephen Layton and Polyphony reaches right back, intriguingly, to the composer’s youthful modernist phase and spans nearly five decades—from 1963 to 2012—in the process. As with the album Triodion, it reflects an increasingly broad spread of languages and sources in Pärt’s chosen texts. Latin, German and English are joined here by Church Slavonic and Spanish. A range of biblical texts are set alongside ancient prayers.
Some composers really deserve their reputation as artists whose fame rests on a single work, but with Holst the popularity of The Planets really has obscured the large quantity of good music he wrote in other forms. Part of the problem also stemmed from his daughter, Imogene, who was severely critical of her father's work and whose baleful influence persists to this day. These three choral ballets contain a large measure of delightful and wholly characteristic music. It's crime that we have had to wait until now for a complete recording of them, and fortunately these performances make a strong case for many more.
This collection of short choral pieces by Johannes Brahms is an unusual one in present times, partly because many of the choral parts are quite demanding. For a choral club in the 19th century, however, it wouldn't have been so novel, and there are great beauties on offer here. After the fetching Ave Maria, Op. 12, the rest of the program is dense, metaphysical, and, with the partial exception of the Alto Rhapsody, Op. 53, concerned with death. There are two funeral songs, and two more about fate, and this is not the warm, humanistic Brahms of the German Requiem, Op. 45. The performances are profound and dignified, and the overall effect uncanny. The Warsaw Philharmonic Choir under choirmaster Henryk Wojnarowski has a gorgeous rich tone that is undiminished by the long lines of the music, and the Alto Rhapsody achieves real grandeur in the hands of contralto Ewa Wolak. But the real credit goes to the Warsaw Philharmonic and conductor Antoni Wit, who keep a consistent level of tension and momentum in difficult, dark material like the somber Nänie, Op. 82 (Funeral Song), a rarely performed late Brahms masterwork.