Having been appointed a member of the Pontifical Council for Culture by the incumbent pope, Arvo Pärt’s decision to remain firmly on the path of sacramental music, particularly in the religious choral tradition, comes as little surprise. Adam’s Lament is a testament to the unthinkable remorse and destitution that the first man on earth experienced after being banished from the Garden of Eden by his omnipotent creator. In accordance with the devotional themes that run through the heart of Pärt’s back-catalog, the famed Estonian composer has pulled inspiration on this occasion from the writings of Silouan the Athonite, a Russian Orthodox monk writing in the late 19th and early 20th Century. A thought-provoking character, Silouan left his homeland to become an ascetic in Greece, where he wrote on a number of devout subjects. Perhaps most notably is his take on Adam’s unequivocal despair and his incarnation as a symbol for humanity’s fall from grace, which Pärt, in accordance with the Catholic doctrine, interprets as a representation of both mankind as a whole and Adam as an individual.
A deep and profound synergy emerges as a consequence; the use of a choir to express this dual understanding resonates by its very virtue as a collective body, while simultaneously inducing gracious ease and gratifying meditation through expansive consonance and frequent sforzando. The Latvian Radio Choir, Vox Clamantis, and the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir achieve this with incredible dexterity throughout the album, which also shoulders wearisome moments that swirl and meander in the daunting lengths that some of these pieces encompass. Indeed, the most prolonged of these is the title track, which is a heartfelt and sincere composition that does little to shy away from exposing Adam’s torment. Where the subtlety of hushed tones is delicate and supine, these graceful inflections are continually thrust alongside wide and and thundering choral bursts that crash like monumental waves walloping down on a fragile shoreline. The sound of the music in this case is perfectly aligned with Silhouan’s writings, where the beauty and the wonder of Eden is juxtaposed with the torment felt by Adam, not only as a consequence of his banishment, but also because of the offense he committed against God.
The seeming contrast between splendor and contrition makes Adam’s Lament an awkward listen in places. Though emotions are beautifully marked in the music, approaching its substance proves tricky as an outsider naive to the wider context – the inspirational source responsible for such daring compositional switches amidst soft and assertive tonality. However, this will be nothing new for avid fans of Pärt, who reconciles this complication with some incredible string arrangements, which weave this epic score with one accord. Dazzling pizzicato is wonderfully executed for the duration, and a gorgeous violin section around the 17-minute mark ties together feelings of trepidation, awe, and ultimately acquiescence as the piece draws to a close.
Despite the title track invoking the most attention, the undisputed highlight, for this writer at least, lies with Salve Regina. Pärt describes the work as being like a funnel “slowly turning and becoming more and more concentrated and grave until it reaches the deepest point.” This is quite bold for a commission that begins with the lines “Hail Queen, mother of mercy; our life, our sweetness and our hope,” for it appeals to the most unrefined awareness of determined praise in the light of Adam’s gut wrenching remorse, before it reiterates the underlying theme running through his emotion: “After this exile show unto us the blessed fruit.” However, it is the fashion through which this is accomplished that makes the composition so engaging, for it propels soft and heavy chorus in a manner that rewards patience in observing the delicate strings arrangements that showcase moments of both crescendo and decrescendo, as opposed to slamming conflicted volumes against one another. The gradual “turning” Pärt discloses is brilliantly achieved due to its contemplative and measured nature, which ultimately bleeds into the following number, Statuit ei Dominus, before a series of thundering drum rolls and cascading vocals ignite, all in less than a minute – a prime example of how disarranged the work can also appear.
The resulting experience is what one might expect from an album that connects the dots between compositions written over the past two decades. Adam’s Lament is brimming with destructive emotional anguish and nonchalant praise for God on the part of humanity. These are two very distinct angles that often brush up alongside each other across the album’s breadth. On tracks where this is achieved more pleasingly, Salve Regina and Beatus Petronius for instance, the affect is quite breathtaking – a resplendent insight into the way that Arvo Pärt has developed as a composer in harnessing fluidity to embellish a point about righteousness through astounding melody. However, where this convergence is made more apparent, the arrangements display an effect almost schizophrenic in their progression, creating a sense of unease that is seemingly unintended, for this most venerated offering is brought to an end with two carefully refined lullabies. As concluding pieces, they almost appear as an afterthought, while concurrently bringing about a feeling of genuine cohesion – and what better way to tie together the repenting embodiment of humankind and the utmost adoration for Christ, than with a hushed and tender farewell.
Arvo Pärt, Adam’s Lament (ECM New Series 2225, October 2012) | Buy it on Amazon
Daniel is a documentary filmmaker and writer currently residing in London. Follow him on Twitter: @danielemmerson.