Arvo Pärt: Kanon Pokajanen

Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, Tõnu Kaljuste

World premiere recordings of music for choir by Arvo Pärt, based on the canon of repentance of the Russian Orthodox Church. The canon had long fascinated the Estonian composer who finally decided to set it in its entirety in music written to mark the 750th anniversary of Cologne Cathedral. Pärt: "It took over two years to compose the Kanon pokajanen, and its hold on me did not abate until I had finished the score…That may explain why this music means so much to me." As writer Uwe Schweikert has noted, it is "music full of austere, painful beauty."

Featured Artists Recorded

June 1997, Niguliste Church, Tallinn

Original Release Date


  • CD 1
  • Kanon Pokajanen
    (Traditional, Arvo Pärt)
  • 1Ode I07:32
  • 2Ode III11:44
  • 3Ode IV07:12
  • 4Ode V08:00
  • 5Ode VI08:18
  • CD 2
  • 1Kontakion02:21
  • 2Ikos02:58
  • 3Ode VII07:13
  • 4Ode VIII08:34
  • 5Ode IX08:14
  • 6Prayer after the Canon11:02

World premiere recordings of music for choir by Arvo Pärt, made in Tallinn with the participation of the composer. "Music," as writer Uwe Schweikert notes, "full of austere, painful beauty. Particularly impressive is the subtle, often breathtaking transition from full to divided choral music, from the sound of high women’s to deep men’s voices, which often provide the music with a sonorous bourdon-like foundation. The amplitude of the composition which in the final prayer gradually rises above the calm only to disappear in silence, will be remembered by everyone who hears Kanon pokajanen as sung by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir."

Arvo Pärt has been fascinated by the canon of repentance of the Russian Orthodox Church since first becoming involved in the Church’s traditions many years ago, and has returned often to the texts. Authorship of the canon is credited to St Andrew of Crete (c 660 – 740 AD). "It is a song of change and transformation. In the symbolism of the church, it invokes the border between day and night, Old and New Testament, old Adam and new Adam (Christ), prophecy and fulfilment, the here and the hereafter. Applied to a person, it recalls the border between human and divine, weakness and strength, suffering and salvation. In the canon of repentance, the text is devoted to the theme of personal transformation. Repentance appears as a necessary threshold, as a kind of purification on the way to salvation in paradise. The difficulty of following the way is shown by the inner tension between the respective eirmos and the following stanzas, that is, between the praise of the Lord and the lamentation of one’s own weakness." [from booklet notes by Marina Bobrik-Frömke].

Previous Pärt choral compositions Nun eile (1990) and Memento (1994) were earlier attempts to approach the canon. Finally, in response to a commission to write music for the 750th anniversary of Cologne Cathedral, the composer determined to set it in its entirety. "This allowed me to stay with it, to devote myself to it…its hold on me did not abate until I had finished the score….It took over two years to compose the Kanon pokajanen …That may explain why this music means so much to me. In this composition, as in many of my vocal works, I tried to use language as a point of departure. I wanted the word to be able to find its own sound, to draw its own melodic line. Somewhat to my surprise, the resulting music is entirely immersed in the particular character of Church Slavonic, a language used exclusively in ecclesiastical texts." In his liner notes – this is, incidentally, the first occasion on which the composer has provided a programme text for one of his albums – Pärt goes on to say that work with the Kanon demonstrated to him the extent to which the language of a given vocal work can shape its form. "The same musical structure, the same treatment of the word, leads to different results depending on the choice of language, as seen on comparing Litany (English) with Kanon pokajanen (Church Slavonic). I used identical, strictly defined rules of composition and yet the outcome is very different in each case."

Kaljuste and his choir have a long history together. In 1971, at the age of 18, Tõnu Kaljuste became conductor of the chamber choir Ellerhein, a vocal ensemble founded by his father. Ten years later, the Ellerhein choir became the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir. The EPCC’s repertoire includes Gregorian chants, music of the baroque era and 20th century works, emphasizing Estonian composers – Tormis, Tüür, and above all, Pärt, of whose vocal music they are the foremost interpreters.

Kanon pokajanen is the third New Series disc to feature the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir performing Pärt’s work. It follows the critically-lauded Te Deum and Litany.

Pärt’s association with ECM was, of course, initiated with the epochal Tabula Rasa, released in 1984, the record that launched the New Series, established Pärt as a composer of international importance and set new directions in contemporary music; his New Series recordings have continued to be the authoritative versions. "The new sound I am continually trying to find," said Pärt at the time of Litany, "is not easy to achieve by just reading the scores. But effort and expense are rewarded with the proper results. And a successful authorized recording has documentary value that can serve as a guide for interpreters to come."