Arvo Pärt: Musica Selecta (ECM New Series 2454/55)

2454|55 X

Arvo Pärt
Musica Selecta
A Sequence by Manfred Eicher

Recorded 1983-2011
Mastered May 2015 from the original recordings by Peter Laenger and Manfred Eicher
Produced by Manfred Eicher
U.S. release date: 11 September 2015

Here is a commemoration not only of the professional and personal collaboration of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt and German record producer Manfred Eicher, but also of the creative spirits that guide them both toward shared spatial goals. Beyond that, it is a looking glass of sonic history in which is reflected two souls who’ve welcomed countless listeners on a journey of light. Issued in time for Pärt’s 80th birthday, Musica Selecta divides that light into its spectral gradations, sounding every band in a sequence of hand-selected pieces from his ECM New Series tenure thus far.

In his liner note for the two-disc album, Eicher refers to Pärt’s compositions as “solitary sound-sculptures.” An apt description if ever there was one. Solitary, because they come from the relationship of one man to the divine, but also sculpted because they take in countless aspects of creation into their corporea. What emerges from Eicher’s idiosyncratic sequencing of events here is therefore less the portrait of an artist than a horoscope, as planetary alignments contradict, refract, and inspire one another into a harmony of greater spheres.

Pärt and Eicher

Remarkable about the program is not only the way in which it compresses a 30-year history into two hours, but also the gentle reminders and forgotten facets—if not new discoveries—of the composer’s oeuvre it contains. Of the latter, the Hilliard Ensemble’s previously unreleased performance of Most Holy Mother of God is an astonishing example and proof that, more than meaning, it is the very architecture of words which determines their sacredness. Like a modest, timeworn church, these melodic structures stand before us marked by the passage of time. Astonishing, too, are those textures more familiar to us, such as the chant-like Ode VI from the Kanon pokajanen, one of Pärt’s profoundest medi(t)ations of flesh and sacrament. Architectural awareness is again central to understanding the integrity of this music, miring itself as it does in the rafters and other neglected places where godly light is most needed. It also introduces into the album’s narrative flow the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, whose voices, under the direction of Tõnu Kaljuste, have occupied the central axis of Pärt’s ECM zodiac from almost the beginning. Their harmonies uncover, like a skilled woodcarver’s tools, moments of transcendence as wounding as they are luminescent. Pärt recognizes the scar in every beauty.

This is what we really mean by the phrase “reading between the lines.” Not the extraction of the visible from the invisible, but the knowledge that everything is inherently invisible, except by the illumination of regard. And so, if either of these pieces feels like dreaming, it is only because singing can sometimes be more surreal than anything taking place behind closed eyes. Solitary voices fluctuate like reflections on water, because neither can exist without the other. We might do well to understand Pärt’s compositions in likeminded fashion—that is, to recognize that no simple motif would have grown without the ancestors before it. All the more appropriate, then, that this conspectus should begin with Es sang vor langen Jahren (“From long ago thus singing”) from Arbos. An album that seems to have fallen off the critical radar, but one that is nevertheless a Musica Selecta of its own. It showcases his ability to negotiate a range of atmospheres—from the intimacy of chamber settings (such as this one for alto, violin, and viola) to the inward-looking sweep of his Stabat Mater, which at 24 minutes is the vastest work included here. Its dramas are theatrical in the same way the heart is theatrical.

This collection’s remaining choral pieces are more entangled with non-living, yet somehow sentient, instruments. The Alleluia-Tropus and Beatus Petronius from Adam’s Lament represent organic conversations—one playful, the other somber—between voices and strings. The latter’s addition of winds renders stems for every leaf. Between them is Trisagion (from Litany), performed here by the Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra as if it were so fragile that even playing it might break it. In this universe, the value of silence, such as it is, feels especially alive. Wallfahrtslied / Pilgrims’ Song (Orient & Occident) is scored for men’s choir and string orchestra and moves more celestially in a combinatory realm of mysticism and gravity. It is an expression of the itinerancy of faith and the challenges it faces when crossing borders. Sometimes, however, the borders cross us, as in the two selections from In Principio. Mein Weg, scored for 14 strings and percussion, builds a descending framework to move upward, while antiphonal Da Pacem Domine is a righteous summation, a tipping point into the as-yet-unknown future of his flourishing.

Silouans Song brings us to one of Pärt’s most pivotal and defining releases: Te Deum, which in addition to the stirring title work (not featured here) yields the mighty Magnificat. These works—Silhouans Song for strings and the Magnificat for choir—feel their way along their respective paths, finding that the truest epiphany comes not from moments of grace (however one chooses to frame them) but in their aftermath, during which one trembles from the shock of revelation while putting together the pieces of a shattered soul. As strings cry out, so do voices draw their bows, each the inner to the other’s outer.

In the company of such vocal apparatuses, the mechanism of the piano, in all its earthy resonance, comes to us as if out of time. In his rendering of Für Alina (Alina), Alexander Malter removes enough of his touch that the windows of access he finds in the score glow with a light born of need to see itself seen.

In highlighting the spaces in which Eicher and Pärt have forged their friendship, one necessarily emphasizes the care with which they have chosen musicians to transport listeners outside themselves. And who better than pianist Keith Jarrett and violinist Gidon Kremer to play a duo version of Fratres. It is the most significant work of this collection, being the world’s introduction to Pärt via the seminal Tabula rasa. The album was the first of ECM’s New Series imprint, which since 1984 has sailed a discriminating vessel at the fore of contemporary music. Jarrett and Kremer bring a level of sensitivity rarely heard in subsequent versions of this often-recorded piece, a spirit of newness and adventure that can only have come from their unprecedented reckoning with what was then a relatively obscure voice leaping like the violin from behind the iron curtain of Soviet oppression. The Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten is another quintessential selection from Tabula rasa, a vibrant threnody that throbs with passion and memory.

From what is arguably Pärt’s finest release, Miserere, comes Festina Lente. Scored for orchestra and harp, it pairs beautifully with the Cantus, if only for its gradual development and lilting form. It also bears dedication, this time to Eicher himself. The tripartite Lamentate, from the album of the same name, is also included. Pianist Alexei Lubimov and the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra, at the baton of Andrey Boreyko, strike a most appropriate balance of lucidity and distortion in this fragile tone poem.

Musica Selecta does more than tell a story. It pulls the beginning and ending of that story together to form a circle, which stands before us like a portal, replacing the suffocation of expectations with an eminently breathable oxygen. Pärt, as only he can, spins our comprehension of it all from elements unseen yet—praise creation—audible. So audible, in fact, that this music might just hear more of us than we ever will of it.


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