Scholar and poet Mark Van Doren said: 'A classic is a book that remains in print'. So let's assume that a 'classic' music composition is one that receives regular performances. By this definition 'classic' status has been achieved by the Passion settings of Schütz, Haydn, and of course the incomparable St Matthew and St John Passions from the composer 'whose light blots out the feeble rays of other composers.' But which of the modern Passions will be performed regularly, and become 'classics'?
The trial has only just begun for Oswaldo Golijov's St Mark's Passion. But the verdict on Arvo Pärt's Passio was passed down soon after its 1982 Munich premiere - a contemporary masterpiece that endures today through live performances and recordings. Passio is a setting of St John scored for a quartet of soloists (SA/CtTB) as Evangelist, bass and tenor for Jesus and Pilate, a quartet of instrumentalists (violin, oboe, bassoon and cello), and choir. In it Pärt uses tintinnabuli, with the melody and the accompaniment fused into one. The work is remarkable for its use of silence, with the duration of the silences between the sections determined by the number of syllables in the final word of the preceeding sentence.
On Saturday night Norwich's soaring Norman Cathedral was the setting for a performance of Passio. The six immensely demanding solo roles were taken by members of Tonus Peregrinus, the instrumentalists were the principals from Chamber Orchestra Anglia, and the University of East Anglia Choir supplied the chorus and promoted the performance. Howard Williams provided incisive conducting which successfully maintained the balance between the soloists and the unusually large choir. 'Remaining in print' may seem a cruelly commercial criteria for judging a work of art. But Arvo Pärt's masterpiece, which is not yet 25 years old, held the large audience spell-bound in rapt silence for more than an hour, surely proof that Marc van Doren's definition is more than just a criteria for bean-counters?
Passio has been recorded several times. If you don't know this work look no further than Tonus Peregrinus' award winning, and very low priced, Naxos version (right) directed by Antony Pitts, and stunningly recorded in the Abbey Church of St Peter and St Paul in Dorchester-on-Thames, here in the UK. The principal roles are taken by Robert Macdonald (Jesus) and Mark Anderson (Pilate) - the same soloists as for the Norwich performance.
It is excellent news that there are several good recordings of Passio available. But recordings are not the equivalent of books in print. A healthy music scene depends on healthy composers, and healthy composers need royalty income, and that royalty income depends on live performance or broadcasts. Both the costs , and rewards, for making and distributing recordings have fallen sharply in recent years, while the cost of mounting concert performances has risen. This means generating royalties from live performances is more difficult than ever. Malcolm Arnold's (right) Ninth Symphony illustrates this difficulty. This work, dating from 1986, has been recorded by three major labels, Naxos, Chandos and Conifer, and has been described as a 20th century masterpiece. Yet there is not one single live performance, anywhere in the world, in the composer's 85th anniversary year. I do not suggest they are works of equal stature, but it is interesting to reflect that Elgar's First Symphony received more than a hundred performances within twelve months of its premiere in 1908, well before the era of music-like-water. By contrast, in the twenty years since its composition, Arnold's Ninth Symphony has received just three concert performances.
In Elgar's day regional performances were vitally important to the promotion of new music, and Elgar himself conducted the premiere of his Sea Pictures in Norwich Cathedral in 1899. Thankfully these regional performances do continue, albeit at a greatly reduced level. The performance of Passio is one example, the only US performance of the Arnold symphony is another. Of the latter a critic wrote: 'In March 2000 I attended the U.S. premiere of Malcolm Arnold's Ninth Symphony which was presented by the Susquehanna Symphony Orchestra, a fine community orchestra in northern Maryland, with Sheldon Bair on the podium. It was a highly emotional event; Sir Malcolm was present. However, as I listened I couldn't help but wonder why one of the major American orchestras wasn't presenting this major premiere.'
Although the difficulty of getting live performances is most acute for contemporary music, it also applies to some surprisingly established masters. The catalogue contains fine recordings of Passion settings by Obrecht, Vittoria, Guerrero (left), Byrd and the grossly under-rated, and elusive, Jacob Handl which are rarely, if ever, heard live today.
CDs and MP3s are wonderful things. But the error is to think that they are substitutes for live performance, either artistically or commercially.
The header image is of sculptor David Begbie's magnificent steelmesh Crucifix which I wrote about in Pilgrimage. Report broken links, missing images and other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk
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