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Music Review: Arvo Part – Adam’s Lament

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At least since his debut recording for the ECM label, Tabula Rasa (1984), Arvo Part has occupied a unique position in the world of music. He has been called the “Mystic of Minimalism,” a term which addresses two attributes that his fans find highly appealing. Part is a deeply religious man, and often uses sacred texts as the basis of his compositions. The fact that this music is regularly presented without excessive adornment not only accounts for the “minimalism” tag, but adds a deeper level of spirituality to it as well.

Adam’s Lament is Part’s latest release, and I believe it to be one of his finest yet. It would not be much of a stretch to single out ECM major-domo Manfred Eicher as a major contributor to the project as well. Eicher’s willingness to record his artists in the best possible environments is commendable. I believe that this is a definite factor in the incredible beauty of Adam’s Lament. The album was recorded in the 13th century church of St. Nicolai in Tallin. The acoustics this venue provided are unparalleled, a fact that even a cursory listen to the disc will confirm.

The album contains eight compositions, including two lullabies. “Adam’s Lament” (24:09) opens the proceedings, and is one of Part’s most fully realized statements. This choral and orchestral piece is based on the writings of Saint Silouan (1866-1938), in which the Russian Orthodox monk describes the Biblical Adam’s pain at the loss of Paradise. There is a profound sense of sorrow at the root of this composition, yet it is balanced by what could best be described as a musical expression of love and humility.

The intent behind this remarkable piece is best described by Part himself, “The name Adam is like a collective term which comprises humankind in its entirety and each individual person alike, irrespective of time, epochs, social strata and confession. We could say that he is all of us who bear his legacy and we, Adam, have been suffering and lamenting for thousands of years on Earth. Adam himself, our primal father, foresaw the human tragedy and experienced it as his personal guilt. He has suffered all human cataclysms, unto the depths of despair.”

“Adam’s Lament” is performed by the Latvian Radio Choir, Vox Clamantis, and Sinfonietta Riga. It is a breathtaking effort by all of the participants.I believe “L‘Abbe Agathon“ (14:04) to be nearly as powerful as “Adam’s Lament.” “L’Abbe Agathon” is scored for soprano (Tui Hirv), baritone (Rainer Vilu), female choir (The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir), and string orchestra (Talinn Chamber Orchestra). The subject matter is highly intriguing. “L’Abbe Agathon” is a three-part work, exploring the legend of St. Agathon. As the story goes, Agathon carried a leper on his back, taking him wherever he needed to go. In essence, Agathon fulfilled all of the outcast’s wishes. In the end, he discovers that the “leper” was in fact an angel sent by God to test Agathon.

Adam’s Lament is augmented with a number of Part’s older choral works, which have been reworked, or “updated“ for inclusion. Two of these are “Beatus Petronius” (5:16), and “Statuit ei Dominus” (4:57). They are described by the composer as “Two sonic worlds, like the two sides of God, which I tried to touch, to trace in these works. It is difficult for us to fathom God – in terms of both his greatness and simultaneous infinite benevolence.” These are powerful statements of intent, yet in listening to Part’s music, I find myself humbled at its simple elegance.

The two lullabies previously mentioned close the disc with a glimmer of hope. In regards to “Estonian Lullaby” (2:08), and “Christmas Lullaby” (2:27), Part explains that they provide “A small consolation combined with the feeling of profundity and intimacy. I wrote these two lullabies for adults, and for the child within every one of us.” I think that the “child within all of us” comment is meant in a deeper sense, in that remnants of Paradise still exist, especially in the untainted eyes of infants.

As I have found in so much of Arvo Part’s music, the intent of Adam’s Lament seems to be to present the human condition as it relates to the spiritual experience. It is truly a phenomenal recording. Although the date was set long before the arrival of Hurricane Sandy, it seems fitting that the music of Adam’s Lament will be performed (with the composer in attendance) at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall in New York on November 17, 2012.

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