Review: Arvo Pärt’s “Passio”

By Heather Leviston

Spring was most definitely in the air as music lovers made their way to a host of venues around Melbourne for music making reminiscent of what used to be called a Pleasant Sunday Afternoon.

In many cases the afternoon was much more than pleasant; stimulating, uplifting or simply awe-inspiring would be more adequate descriptors of what was on offer.

For this reviewer, Arvo Pärt’s Passio with Gloriana Chamber Choir and Players held the greatest attraction, but it was a difficult choice. Australian Octet promised to be a pretty exciting experience with their Souvenir de Florenceprogram, especially with the inclusion of a new work by Paul Stanhope; the Melbourne Bach Choir featured Michael Haydn’s Requiem with an inviting line-up of soloists including Antoinette Halloran; the brilliant coloratura soprano Elena Xanthoudakis was singing Bach’s Wedding Cantata with Frank Pam’s Melbourne Musicians; and Nathan Lay featured in a recital presented by the Lieder Society of Victoria. And that was just for starters. At least satisfaction could be guaranteed, whatever the choice.

A performance of Arvo Pärt’s Passio Nostri Jesu Christi secundum Joannem may have seemed a rather solemn way to celebrate the great Estonian composer’s 80th birthday, but a work of such spiritual power could not have been more appropriate.

Composed in 1982, with a text taken from the Gospel According to St John, it is his first large-scale work in his tintinnabuli style, a name that refers to the bell-like sound of the notes in a triad. It is a technique where, according to Pärt, “the melody and the accompaniment are one. One plus one is one – it is not two”. It also relies on an acute sense of pitch and prodigious breath control on the part of the performers.

The story of Christ’s passion is narrated by an “Evangelist Quartet”: soprano, alto, tenor and bass, accompanied by a quartet of instruments: violin, oboe, cello and bassoon.

With most of the material sung by the Evangelist Quartet, who also joined the choir for the crowd scenes, reliable musicianship and secure vocal technique were called upon and delivered. Whether as soloists or in various combinations, Sue Wuttke, Louisa Billeter, Ben Owen and Jerzy Kozlowski all sang well with Kozlowksi making a particularly effective contribution.

Although Passio has not been performed in Melbourne for some time, this was his fifth performance in some capacity and it showed. Always musically assured his mellow, relaxed bass baritone resonated splendidly as he began the narrative after the short but potent introduction by the choir.

Read the complete review on the Classic Melbourne Website.

Alae Taule'alo