PÄRT: Berliner Messe. HARRISON: Mass (to Saint Anthony).

PÄRT: Berliner Messe. HARRISON: Mass (to Saint Anthony). Gilbert Seeley conducting the Oregon Repertory Singers and Chamber Orchestra; Marianne Lewis, organ. KOCH INTERNATIONAL 3-7177-2 H1 [DDD]; 50:04. Produced by Michael Fine.

These two 20th-century settings of the Mass, though composed many years apart and in different parts of the world, share much in the way of both aesthetic values and musical techniques in common. Each aims at a serene, devotional purity–simple and straightforward, without complications of emotion or drama   Some listeners will find this approach to be a virtue, producing a focused sense of spiritual elevation; others will find that the lack of contrast produces a sense of monotony. Both works achieve their effects by drawing upon types of modality and counterpoint suggestive of Medieval music, while, of course, treating them in personal, more contemporary ways.

Arvo Pärt’s Berliner Messe was composed just a few years ago, at the time of the re-unification of Germany, and is scored for mixed voices and organ. The part-writing is inventive and original in its blend of the Medieval and the Modern. However, the tonality of the music is static, with a virtual absence of harmonic rhythm. This, combined with its consistently passive energy level, produces a psychological effect to which listeners will respond differently, according to their own musico-spiritual propensities. Presumably, readers will be able to infer from this brief description and from their prior experience with Pärt’s music how they are likely to respond to this piece. 

I would suspect that most listeners who enjoy the Pärt will also enjoy Lou Harrison’s Mass. (Veteran collectors may recall an Epic LP of this work, conducted by Margaret Hillis, back inthe mid-1950s.) Harrison composed the vocal portion in 1939, intending an accompaniment of only percussion instruments, in the manner of North-American Indian devotional music. However, in 1954, he changed his mind and created an accompaniment for trumpet and strings. The voices sing in unison throughout, with neo-archaic two-part counterpoint, featuring much use of perfect intervals, provided by the orchestra. The result is rather touching in its gentleness, producing a similar sense of psychological stasis as engendered by the Pärt.

The performances by the Oregon Repertory Singers are quite good.

Listeners drawn to these works are likely also to appreciate the three a capella Mass settings of Arnold Rosner, as well as his Symphony No. 5, a magnificent 35-minute orchestral adaptation of the Mass. Rosner’s music draws more from Renaissance than Medieval practices, with less austere results. Unfortunately, none of these works is yet recorded, but his Magnificat (Laurel LR-849) will give you some idea.