Sunday Night Journal, April 9, 2017
Sunday Night Journal, April 16, 2017

52 Albums, Week 15: Kanon Pokajanen (Arvo Pärt, composer; Estonian Philarmonic Chamber Choir)

(I hope this will be as close as we come to missing a week of this series. I don't have time to write anything much this week, and there's nothing else in the hopper, so this is going to consist in large part of quotes from reviewers.)

If you like classical music at all, you know Arvo Pärt's name. Chances are fairly good that you like his work, as it's a lot more accessible than the stereotypical "modern" classical music. I put "modern" in quotes because it's been over a hundred years now since we started applying that word to music that sounds really weird. No one would mistake Pärt for Bach, but no one would mistake him for Schoenberg, either (at least not in his better-known works--I've read that his earliest work was serial).

Pärt is in fact so well-known and popular and, for want of a better word, easy, that in my contrary way I've wondered if he might be over-rated. But I don't think so, really. I think his best work will last, and that the Kanon Pokajanen will be considered one his best, though it is quite austere.The title means "Canon of Repentance," and it is an a capella setting of an Orthodox text written in Old Slavonic. It was commissioned for the 750th anniversary of the cathedral of Cologne and premiered in 1998. The first recording, and the one I'm talking about here, is ECM New Series 1654/55, performed by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir under the direction of Tõnu Kaljuste. The work is dedicated to them. 


Uncharacteristically austere packaging for ECM. Doesn't look very promising.


From the CD booklet, which includes the texts, a note from the composer, and several photos similar to this one, some variant of which would have made a nice cover. They are of the interior of the Niguliste Church in Tallin, Estonia, where the recording was made. (Pärt is Estonian.)

This is not casual listening at all, although I suppose you could play it softly as ambient music of a distinctly religious cast. What you need to do is sit quietly with the text (included with the CD) and follow it carefully. The effect can be profound. Here are excerpts from some reviews, the first two of the ECM CD and the third of a performance.

Gramophone had this to say:

Viewed with hindsight, Kanon pokajanen recalls the tintinnabulation of Part’s recent creative past, but on a grand scale: here the repeated segments are larger, more widely spaced, more subtly varied. The text is crucial, and the process of following it in translation essential for a full appreciation of how Part feels and experiences the Kanon’s meaning. Of course, one also has the ‘soft option’ of letting Kanon pokajanen waft thoughtlessly into the ether (the glorious singing of the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir suggests ethereal weightlessness), but I wouldn’t recommend it. Part’s profound marriage of word, music and spirit sits at the very apex of the current religio-musical revival, and deserves some measure of our attention in payment for the two years it took to complete. The recording is faultless. (full review here)


Arvo Part's Kanon Pokajanen is a work of starkly radiant beauty, a deeply felt plea for forgiveness so resonant it seems to bear its own expiatory power.... This is music to soak in, music to meditate to. Music of searing intensity that finds that part of the soul, so often neglected in today's fast-paced lifestyle, that is starved for reverence, fear, and awe, longing to say "Come out to seek me; lead me up to Thy pasturage and number me among the sheep of Thy chosen flock. Nourish me with them on the grass of Thy Holy Mysteries." (full review here)

Orthodox Arts Journal: insists that the listener slow down his perception of time. If you’re waiting for the piece to be over (something common in our impatient age), or if you’re waiting to be carried away by some dramatic change in the music, the piece will seem tedious, if not excruciating. For me, the experience was something akin to jumping into water that’s slightly too cold. At first, I was uncomfortable, and I floundered around for something familiar to hold on to. Then, slowly, I began to adjust to my new environment, and I soon found that by using my mental muscles in a different way—that is, by slowing down my thoughts and allowing them to move in the rhythm that the piece was dictating, like a swimmer adjusting to the temperature and increased resistance of water—I was able to occupy the space of the piece, and to understand something of what it was conveying. The result of this slowing down was that the text, those deeply penitential words, started coming alive in a totally unexpected way. I began to dwell on the words, not simply reading them for sense meaning as I normally would (as you’re probably reading this article right now), but really pondering them and allowing the meaning of each word to penetrate. The experience was not at all tedious, but dynamic and exciting, and profoundly moving. After the reverberations of the final heart-wrenching “Amens” had died away—a piercingly high and thick D-major chord resolving upwards even higher to G-minor, and then, in a lower register, from G-minor back to D-major—the audience sat in rapt silence for a pregnant ten seconds before erupting in thunderous applause. (full article here)

 Here is a Wikipedia article giving some background on the work. There is of course also an article on the composer

And here is a sample. The bulk of the piece is in sections called "odes." 


--Mac is the proprietor of this blog.


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You have penned the last two albums, does this mean you need some contributions?

Definitely. One reason I was willing to do this series was that I knew I could always come up with something fairly quickly if I didn't have anything from anybody else. But I'd rather not have to do the remaining 37 ones. :-)

Well, I've finished everything I had to do for Easter, and soon I might have six free minutes to write something.

I was pleasantly surprised to find out on Tuesday that diocesan employees now have holidays on Holy Thursday and Easter Monday. I'm extremely grateful to whoever is responsible for that. I suspect the new bishop.


I want to see a six-minute album review, Janet! I think it would have to be a video of you speaking though.

I'll write about Lucinda Williams over the weekend, Mac.

I'm a great fan of this recording.

In parish use the Canon, divided into four roughly equal parts lasting about a half-hour each, is sung on the first four evenings of Lent. Then a shortened version of the whole Canon is usually sung on a Wednesday evening half way through Lent (we sang it on March 29). This is how many of the Slavic Churches do it anyways.

I'll try to find an audio or video clip of what it sounds like in its typical form.

I wondered if it's used in typical parish worship.

Thanks, Stu.

Yeah, that six-minute review would be interesting. Get some of that TV talk-show vibe in here. :-)

My music major friend from college (many years back) introduced me to the music of Arvo Pärt a couple of years ago, and I have enjoyed finding recordings of his music since then. Thanks for sharing!

You're welcome. This particular recording is sort of a big investment--two disks, and ECM's prices are generally on the high side. But worth it in my opinion. There are other recordings available now, of course, including what seems to be an entire performance that's on YouTube.

Thanks for writing about this album, Mac. Of all the CDs in my collection, this is one of those that sits closest to my heart. I remember clearly the day I bought it, and my amazement at the music when I first heard it. (At that time I was just discovering the music of Arvo Part.)

I had the privilege, some years ago, it hear Part's Kanon Pokajanen sung live by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir with Tonu Kaljuste -- basically the live version of this album. It was so beautiful, one of the great concert experiences of my life. I was in the second row, and I was amazed at the detail I could hear live that wasn't apparent on the recording. In particular, there's a piercing high note sung quietly by one of the sopranos on the penultimate 'Amen', and I nearly crumpled to the floor when I heard it. Gorgeous.

Anyway, if anyone is reading this and hasn't heard this piece, I would recommend it in the warmest terms. There is another recording that came out in the past year by Cappella Amsterdam. It's also very good.

My best wishes to all for a happy and blessed Triduum.

And likewise to you.

It seems that the people who like the Kanon *really* like it. That live experience does sound wonderful.

Here's a link to a service of the Canon from a nearby monastery, one which I've visited many times. The celebrant here is Fr. Thomas Hopko of blessed memory.

We do the Canon in our parish the same way it's done here, except that in a parish setting it's divided into four parts over four nights, while in a monastery it is sung in its entirety on each of the four nights.

The Canon proper starts at about the 3:30 mark.

Thanks. Haven't had a chance to listen to it yet.


A very beautiful liturgy obviously, though I didn't listen to the whole thing.

Yes, I wouldn't expect anyone to listen to the whole thing -- just wanted to provide a taste of what the actual service is like!

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