Pärt’s “Passio” At St. Bart’s: Glorious Stasis

St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, Park Avenue, NY, April 4, 2017—Listening to Arvo Pärt’s Passio one wonders how a piece of music that is almost self-consciously undramatic moves people so thoroughly. The 70-minute work, all of a piece (without “numbers” or places to pause), composed in 1989, is scored for four soloists (SATB) who act together and individually as the Evangelist; one each of oboe, bassoon, violin, cello, and organ (almost never playing at the same time); a mixed choir; a solo baritone who intones the words of Jesus; and a solo tenor who acts as Pontius Pilate.

The setting of the Passion is utterly unlike Bach’s or any other; sung in Latin, it offers one syllable per note in a forthright, direct fashion—there is not one melisma in the piece. Its dynamic range is from quiet to less quiet; only once or twice the does the chorus sing at forte and once or twice so does Jesus. Only in the first and last minutes is there a triple-forte. If the grand Bach Passions are to be performed on “occasions”, then Pärt’s is a story to be told and retold, its directness and refusal to change tempo an inevitable lesson. The text is understandable at all times.

The music is tonal and recognizable as such, and one becomes accustomed to the constant dissonances; only occasionally is the dissonance ghastly, as on the word “Crucifixus”, and it jars the senses. For a piece so persistently steady, it is never boring. Pärt’s textures change constantly, they revolve and return. The chorus’ chants often have a surprising tang to them and the bright oboe punctuates. At times the solo soprano sings a few lines of recitative, later joined by the alto. If the four soloists sing together, often one will hold the final note of the phrase longer than the others. Jesus always has the longest phrases and the lowest notes.

Great Music at St Bart’s’ performance did the work proud. The Evangelical quartet was excellent, with soprano Genevieve McGahey and tenor Christopher Carter particularly fine, and the vocal blend among the four was impressive. The four instrumentalists offered their sparse but pointed contributions with poise and accuracy and Jason Roberts’ organ actually seemed to feel the Passion’s despair. Jeff Morrissey was underpowered and uncertain as Jesus—a pity—but Ryland Angel intoned Pilate’s strange music expressively. The chorus sang superbly, from the forte on “Barabbas” to the whispered “Ecce homo”.

The audience held its breath.

One note on the text: Much has been written about the anti-Semitism in the St. John Passion where the Jews are explicitly blamed for the death of Jesus. The printed translation at St Bart’s replaced the word “Jews” with “people”, a most sensitive move.