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Soothing Music for Troubled Times

March 27, 2020

If ever we needed restorative, soothing, and transcendent music, the time is now. Indeed, there is a sense of timelessness, a kind of soul-saving beauty that compels the listener to be at a remove from our current terrestrial world and indulge in the otherworldly pursuits found on Harmonia Mundi’s new release, Stabat. Featuring works by holy minimalist Estonian Arvo Pärt, Latvian Pēteris Vasks, and Scottish composer James MacMillan, the album’s seven selections are performed by the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, with the strings of The Dimitri Ensemble, conducted by Graham Ross, who also wrote the liner notes.

And although none of the works are premieres, the selections heard together as a whole, are strikingly resonant and set a decidedly meditative tone. Pärt, 84, dominates the disc, his Da pacem, Domine — a starkly modest prayer for peace written in 2004 as a tribute to the Madrid bombing victims — is paired with his 1997 The Woman with the Alabaster Box, composed for the 350th anniversary of Sweden’s Karlstad Diocese. A setting of verses from the Gospel according to St. Matthew, this six-minute work moves from serenity to dissonance and back again in subtle and profound ways.

With Vasks’s Plainscapes written in 2002 for mixed choir, violin, and cello, the composer takes us on a 15-minute aural journey across his native Latvia — a love letter, if you will — where glissandi, whistles, and even birdsong are predominant. Hushed and intimate, this wordless, atmospheric opus establishes a harmonious mood in sustained whispers, with the vocalese — accompanied by provocative violin and cello solos — offering a textured and blissful soundtrack. Seemingly creating an all-out plea for human decency in several quasi-frenzied moments, the work is an astonishing one for the ages.

MacMillan’s Miserere, a setting of Psalm 51 in Latin, also has the feeling of a journey — a divine one. Premiered by The Sixteen in 2009 — with numerous other composers, including Palestrina, Brahms, and, most famously, Allegri, all having tackled it over the centuries (Pärt composed his setting in 1989) — the work draws from several ancient musical ideas. Not exactly minimalism, the 12-minute creation is, nevertheless, sacred to its core, the text incorporating plainchant tradition while moving seamlessly from minor to major modes. The tapestry of sounds ranges from the plaintive opening heard in the tenors and basses to the soaring, highly ornamented melodies of the sopranos. A tender diminuendo that closes the work lends it an unmistakable — and redemptive — grace.

Three other compositions by Pärt, including his brilliant setting of the Stabat Mater (1985), comprise the rest of the disc, a must-have for those seeking solace in today’s troubled world.

Victoria Looseleaf is an award-winning international arts journalist who covers dance, music, theater and the visual arts. Publications she has contributed to include the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times and KCET Artbound. Her feminist novella in verse, Isn’t It Rich? is being adapted for the stage, and her children’s/coffee table book, Russ & Iggy’s Art Alphabet, will soon be published by Red Sky Presents. In addition, Looseleaf co-founded the online magazine ArtNowLA.