The second ECM New Series album to fully showcase Estonian vocal group Vox Clamantis is devoted to compositions by their great countryman, Arvo Pärt – whose music has been the most performed globally of any living composer over the past five years from his 75th birthday leading up to his 80th last September. This album – titled The Deer’s Cry after its first track, an incantatory work for a cappella mixed choir – is also the latest in a long, illustrious line of ECM New Series releases to feature Pärt’s compositions, the very music that inspired Manfred Eicher to establish the New Series imprint in 1984. Along with such classic works as Da Pacem Domine the new album includes first-time recordings of the a cappella pieces Drei Hirtenkinder aus Fátima and Habitare Fratres. There is also an a cappella version of Alleluia-Tropus, which Vox Clamantis previously recorded alongside instruments for the Grammy Award-winning ECM New Series album Adam’s Lament. Rarely recorded material makes up nearly half of this new release, which includes three pieces with subtle instrumental accompaniment: Von Angesicht zu Angesicht, Sei gelobt, du Baum and Veni Creator.
The history of Vox Clamantis with Pärt’s music dates to 1999, when the group performed its signature Gregorian chant between the sections of his iconic organ piece Annum per Annum, a creative touch that pleased the composer. Pärt was also attracted to the ensemble’s pure-toned sound in chant. The first New Series album by Vox Clamantis, the 2012 release Filia Son, illustrates this special sonic quality, as it features the group in medieval music from Gregorian chant to works by Perotin and Hildegard von Bingen. About the group’s way with this music and its connection to Pärt, leader Jaan-Eik Tulve says: “Gregorian chant is monophonic music that emphasizes the blend of voices, so working on vocal sound, color and blend has been one of the constant priorities of our ensemble. In our early years, we only sang Gregorian chant and early polyphony, but we began adding contemporary music to our repertoire – and Arvo Pärt’s music stands closest to the roots of chant. In time, we sang more and more of it. Arvo would bring us songs to perform, with Veni Creator written with the monophonic singing tradition in mind. Then he composed Alleluia-Tropus especially for us.”
When it comes to some of Pärt’s most popular pieces, such as Da Pacem Domine, Tulve explains the Vox Clamantis approach: “Even though verticality is important in Arvo’s music, we’re also always searching for horizontality, for the legato, the smooth merger of different sounds and colors. I’ve never willfully aimed to do something wholly differently than others; rather, I strive for that which in my own eyes seems right and honest. To get at the core of a piece, one simply has to sing it a lot at first. Only then will one gradually begin to grasp its true contents – so as to finally omit everything superfluous. It is very characteristic of our ensemble to try and achieve maximal expression by minimal means.”
Most of the album was recorded at Tallinn Transfiguration Church in Estonia, with the composer present to work with the singers. “Arvo’s pointers are always very illuminating,” Tulve says. “He doesn’t tell you to sing one way or another; instead, he tries to guide the interpreter, by way of mental images, into the world in which, or out of which, he wants his work to be performed. Arvo also has a brilliant sense of humor, and this is always an important liberating factor in the creative process. It happens that, wanting to give his composition more energy, he will even start dancing along with it.
“Arvo’s music evokes such simple, yet profound emotions that listening to it is liberating and ablutionary,” Tulve concludes. “This has been proved time and again when we have performed his music at many concerts all over the world, to very different people. Arvo’s music has enraptured great spiritual leaders and radical atheists alike.”
Tulve and Vox Clamantis will perform their first concert marking the release of The Deer’s Cry on September 18, 2016, the Church of St. Francis Xavier in New York City. There are also album launch concerts in Bergamo, Italy, on October 1 and in Saint Petersburg, Russia, on October 6, with further concerts following in Germany and Estonia.