Playing Pärt

Playing Pärt

Playing Pärt

Directed and filmed by Dorian Supin
Release date: October 12, 2012

In 2011, the Old Town Music School of Collegium Educationis Revaliae and the International Arvo Pärt Centre put on a student concert of Pärt’s music at St Michael’s Church in Tallinn. Playing Pärt documents both this historic performance and the rehearsals leading up to it, supplemented by interviews with the composer and his wife, Nora.

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Said concert is a charming, in-depth survey of Pärt’s legacy, and of the beauty that gives it resonance. Many pieces on the program will be familiar to ECM listeners: organ works Trivium and Pari Intervallo (the latter arranged here for four guitars), Da Pacem Domine (arranged for four recorders), and the solemn Für Alina are standouts among them. Spiegel im Spiegel, for its balance of tension and prayer, is another. Throughout, a quiet respect prevails by way of a “local” feeling that cannot be replicated in the international concert hall. These melodies, however familiar, paint even more direct lines to the heart when so endearingly performed. Like fragrances in sound, they waft through the senses, following ancient channels of memory even while forging new ones.

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Delightful surprises abound. First and foremost are “The Cycle of Four Easy Dances,” from the 1959 collection Music for Children’s Theatre, including the rarely heard “Butterflies” and the evocative “Dance of the Ducklings,” replete with dissonant splashes of webbed feet. Just as alluring is “I’m Already Big,” a children’s song composed when Pärt was a student. The focus on youth feels as poignant as it does inevitable, and makes indelible impressions in such choral settings as Veni Creator (a 2006 commission from the German Bishops’ Conference), Bogoróditse Djévo (a 1990 commission from Cambridge King’s College Choir, based on a Church Slavonic hymn to the Virgin Mary), and Vater Unser (composed in 2005 and based on a German translation of the Lord’s Prayer), for which the composer at the piano accompanies a quartet of singers.

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Other highlights are Ukuaru Waltz, originally composed for the film Ukauru (1973, dir. Leid Laius) and performed on two chromatic kannels (plucked zithers), the aleatoric Diagramme (Pärt’s opus 11), and Variations for the Healing of Arinushka, a solo piano piece composed in 1977 while daughter Ariina was recovering from an appendix operation. Trepidations and hope of light breathe through every note.

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Yet it’s in the rehearsals where Pärt’s humilities come out in full attendance. More than providing insight into the mind of a world-renowned composer, they reveal the soul of a man whose entire concept of art is nothing without faith in eternity. He understands the quality of sound, and the beauty of it being played with heart. If anything, and for that very reason, he’s more demanding of the children’s pieces, which in all their etudinal simplicity allow the interpreter’s soul to resound. During a rehearsal of “Butterflies,” for instance, he says, “It’s essential for the music to have some kind of secret. That’s the case of the butterfly as well. It’s a mysterious creature.” For him, the rudiment is sacred.

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His music has materiality, and he treats it accordingly. Whether stressing the positions of a pianist’s hands while playing Für Alina or chiding himself for inclusion of inappropriate dynamics in the original score to “Dance of the Ducklings” (upon hearing which, he exclaims, “A beautiful piece. Did I compose it?”), he upholds the value of any given moment to shape something unexpected, personal, and true.

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We encounter echoes of this philosophy in his conversations with Nora. In these, the subject of the interpreter is a red thread, pulling at questions of authority versus idiosyncrasy, and concluding that one must be both strong and gentle in order to play music with genuine feeling. “It has to be born in the soul of the interpreter,” he says, for in the body thereof is something concrete and in the metaphysical thereof is something ineffable. “The composer,” he goes on to say, “can learn a lot from the interpreter.” Most musicians, Nora agrees, are unresponsive to this suggestion. It’s like trying to explain how the sun shines. Hardship, Pärt adds, helps people understand this. Children notice it, too. Hence, the concert. They are straightforward, avers Nora, whereas professionals are contending with “a thousand different traditions.” Innocence allows performers to take notes seriously. She further likens music to the optical effect of two binocular images merging into one, a simile I would extend to the listener’s relationship to what’s being heard. Countless motifs out there are waiting to blend into our own. Let this film be a reminder of our openness to the spiritually healthiest ones.

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Arvo Pärt: Lamentate (ECM New Series 1930)

Lamentate

Arvo Pärt
Lamentate

The Hilliard Ensemble
Sarah Leonard soprano
David James counter-tenor
Rogers Covey-Crump tenor
Steven Harrold tenor
Gordon Jones baritone
Alexei Lubimov piano
SWR Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra
Andrey Boreyko conductor
Lamentate recorded June 2004 at Stadthalle Sindelfingen
Engineers: Dietmar Wolf and Jürgen Buss
Da Pacem Domine recorded April 2005 at Propstei St. Gerold
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Tempting as it may be, the typing of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt as a spiritual modernist hardly begins to assess the reach, import, and atmospheric integrity of his music. The more closely one listens to it, the more one hears between every heartbeat an alternating current, whereby shadows take solace in their own orientation of elements. Awareness of this dichotomy throws sanctity over the banal, and lends banality to the sacred, so that by the end of any Pärt listening experience one emerges changed yet profoundly the same—the self made clear under a magnifying glass polished by sound.

And so, while Lamentate may be said to represent a new direction for Pärt, whose music has hardly sounded this visceral since his formative dips into the avant-garde, it also feels like a reflection back to the womb, if only because the composer has so carefully woven into its basketry a conscious structural flaw. Said flaw is the essence of being human. It is what turns the visage of existence firmly away from the realm of fantasy toward the mirror of reality. This “lamento for the living” takes its inspiration from the enormous sculpture “Marsyas” by Anish Kapoor, at the time located in Turbine Hall of London’s Tate Modern, and anchors a piano soloist (here it is Alexei Lubimov at the keyboard) in an orchestral ocean. In the album’s liner notes, Pärt describes his first encounter with the sculpture: “My first impression was that I, as a living being, was standing before my own body and was dead—as in a time-warp perspective, at once in the future and the present.” Lamentate thus concerns itself with time—or, more precisely, with those who deal with time. The work was premiered at the sculptural site in London on February 7 and 8, 2003, and was recorded for ECM in 2004 at Germany’s Stadthalle Sindelfingen, near Stuttgart.

Before throwing us into these prophetic waters, the disc opens with the prayer for peace that is Da pacem Domine. Composed in 2004 on the basis of a ninth-century Gregorian antiphon and recorded here a year later at St. Gerold monastery near the Austrian mountains, it features the Hilliard Ensemble with soprano Sarah Leonard in a moving, timeless performance (the work reappears in updated form on In Principio). Like much of Pärt’s choral writing, its simplicity is its strength, requiring discipline from interpreters to bring out inner complexities. The antiphon is stretched to reveal a stratum unto itself, a melody to be born into and from. Its lines mark the binding of a book of experiences, the pages of which fade in one direction and become crisper in the other. All, however, bear equal wisdom of the divine hand that inscribed them.

With such pulchritude still warming the chest, Lamentate (2002) comes like a hit in the gut. Each of its ten movements is a monument—now fragile, now menacing—to some emotional shell. These surfaces act as palimpsests for the cellular activities that unspool from a brass incantation. A bass drum rumbles as would the hand of a god trapped beneath the earth’s surface pound for escape. In that frustration are flashes of a life confounded by lifelessness, declarations of dependence wrought in beat and bow. Over the piece’s own lifespan, the recording takes on a wavelength that cracks open intersections of space and time and spins from their yolks an entirely new cosmos. In this parallel universe, the winds are seemingly still yet utterly dynamic like nebulae as fetal kicks javelin fresh thought through a needle of questioning. The piano’s solitude provides the only answer it ever needed to breathe, for in the crafting of flesh lurks a question far beyond our articulation, and to which music nevertheless brings us steps closer. As relays of brass, piano, and percussion give way to whispering tides, echoes of earlier compositions (such as Psalom) make themselves known as a lilting oboe swims against the current. And even the nominal resolution treats alignment like a fantasy, leaving us by the end looking above for any sign of what it means to be below.

Marsyas
(Photo credit: Empics)

Of Tears, Of Privilege: Adam’s Lament at Lincoln Center

Adam’s Lament
Latvian Radio Choir
Sinfonietta Rīga
Tõnu Kaljuste conductor
Alice Tully Hall, Starr Theater
Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts
November 17, 2012
7:30pm

Of Tears…
It would be easy to paint the maturation of Arvo Pärt in the shape of a funnel. The Estonian composer was trained in the language of modernism but came to consolidate his musical foci into so-called “holy minimalism”—a catchall term that, while descriptive enough, ultimately defeats itself. In Pärt’s vision, minimalism seems better represented as pinpoints of light, stars that would be nothing without their limpid sky. Such mutual dependency is what makes the music sacred. We do better, then, to twin the funnel into an hourglass, endlessly turned by the hands and mouths of whoever bestows its truths to those fortunate enough to hear them. So we are when the Latvian Radio Choir and Sinfonietta Rīga, under the masterful guidance of Tõnu Kaljuste, present an all-Pärt program as part of Lincoln Center’s annual White Light Festival. Anticipation is high and met when the first strains of the Berliner Messe (1990-91, rev. 2002) touch our cortices. Composed on commission after Pärt’s emigration to Berlin, this setting of the Ordinary possesses a remarkable permeability. Around the standard texts and interjected Allelujas, strings sketch the thunder of conversion. Their pulse is elemental, hidden. Suspension awaits in Pärt’s setting of the Te Deum (1984-85, rev. 1992), the work that introduced me to its composer and which has since lived inside me. It develops motives like a book: knowledge that came before feeds into that which follows. A digitally sampled wind harp unfurls a constant and godly breath, piano dipping into the font of reason and stirring double basses to higher registers. Every crescendo equals stillness. We feel it in the soles of our feet, in the palms of our hands, in the stigmata of our collective memory.

Intermission brings about the surreal din of interpretation, snatches of recreated melody and soloists praised for the sake of proving knowledge.

Trisagion (1992, rev. 1994) begins the second half. Written in celebration of the 500th anniversary of a small Finnish parish, its title comes from the Greek for “Thrice Holy” and makes reference to Orthodox prayer and to the piece’s three core pitches. It is an overturned cup, spilling unspoken words. It is the beat of mortality. It is crystal, tarnished and restored. Also restored are the writings of ascetic Silouan of Athos (1866-1938), something of a touchstone of Pärt’s work and the red thread of Adam’s Lament (2009), the landscape of which resonates with suffering. Tears feed its soil as sunlight feeds the flora that grow from it. The mountains shiver, fauna likewise in their dreamless slumber. All the more appropriate that the musicians encore with Estonian Lullaby (2002, rev. 2006), bringing with it needed repose in an age so restless that only a child’s mind can contain its temper.

Of Privilege…
Nestled in the orchestra section of Alice Tully Hall, and in the most prayerful music I have experienced firsthand in years, I become uncomfortably aware of the allowances that brought us together. In the suffering of Silouan’s Adam lies the root of strife. How can Pärt not have this in mind when he has suffused his reading with the pain of the mortal body, its skeleton at once fractured and bonded by immeasurable sorrow? On this note, I must respectfully disagree with Zachary Woolfe, who in his November 19 New York Times review characterizes Pärt as having “defined a seductive vision of modern spiritual music, one that seeks to escape our world…rather than to embrace it.” I wonder if we are listening to the same music, for it is anything but escapist. Rather, it reminds me that I am experiencing an $80-per-ticket luxury even as innocents continue to die for nothing at the hands of self-interested regimes. Its surplus of beauty only serves to emphasize the rarity thereof. In spite of venue and context, the intimacy of the musicianship heightens my awareness of these realities. That their charge transcends the commercial trappings of the festival speaks to precisely the love that went into its creation, even if it does nothing to obscure the tightrope I walk in balancing appreciation with the hypocrisy of my inaction. I feel this acutely as, in the wake of a standing ovation, concertgoers debate the technical ups and downs of what they have just heard. With such effect still whirring inside us, what difference do a few glitches in the first half make?

In the toy chest of temptation, there is a kaleidoscope of shadow. Through it, one sees that the world has become sick with perlocution. Turning it in the hands only darkens its glory. It blinds us to those in need. Awareness, this music tells us, is not enough. One must also know the vitality of experience. Grace is not something to be won back through good deeds or mere contemplation, but felt when one no longer seeks it. When I seek Mr. Kaljuste instead and inform him that I will be writing this review, he humbly wishes me good luck. Yet I read a deeper truth into the statement. Without luck, I would not have been here. May I never forget that.

Let me know Thy touch,
that I may know of life.
Let me know Thy touchlessness,
that I may know the path.

Arvo Pärt: Adam’s Lament (ECM New Series 2225)

Arvo Pärt
Adam’s Lament

Latvian Radio Choir
Sinfonietta Riga
Vox Clamantis
Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir
Tallinn Chamber Orchestra
Tõnu Kaljuste conductor
Recorded November 2011 at Niguliste Church in Tallinn by Peter Laenger and Stephan Schellmann, except for Estonian Lullby and Christmas Lullaby, recorded May 2007 by Margo Kõlar
Mixed at Rainbow Studio in Oslo by Arvo Pärt and Manfred Eicher with Jan Erik Kongshaug (engineer)
Produced by Manfred Eicher

“The text is independent of us; it awaits us. Everyone needs his own time to come to it. The encounter occurs when the text is no longer treated as literature or artwork, but as reference point or model.”

If the above is any indication, Arvo Pärt is one who understands text for what it is: a stepping-stone. With an attention equaled perhaps only by Alexander Knaifel, he holds words like votive candles, giving them flame by the touch of his gift for sound. Whatever we bring along the way is welcomed as it is, broken and hungry for a voice to lift its spirits. To this end, the writings of Saint Silouan (1866-1938) again form the touchstone for a program shaped as much by lips and tongue as by the Holy Spirit that guides them. If we never forget Silouans Song, the strains of which bled through the Estonian composer’s groundbreaking Te Deum recording of 1993 with especial scintillation, it is because its source had already been surpassed by the first draw of a bow. On Adam’s Lament, texts come to us as travelers with distant knowledge in their satchels. For ECM’s thirteenth program devoted to his art, Pärt builds on the tintinnabulation that shrouded his work of the eighties and nineties. He looks even more internally, seeking not only the echo’s path but also its unknowable spark.


(Photo by Kaupo Kikkas)

Paradise as Adam knew it may be lost, but in the eponymous piece we find our own. Though it is an illusion made possible by reverberation and microphones, its power rings beyond the circumscription of its capture. Here, Pärt works from the inside out, finding in every contour of its ecclesial Slavic text a vision of flesh and nature. Holding these together is the touch of one whose own humility exceeds him. And is not humility the greatest mystery to be enhanced through the act of putting pen to staves? It is, says Pärt, an enigma to the stained mind: “like marble, its beauty radiates from its depths.” The locus of that beauty takes form through the body’s destruction. Even then, its reality is partial. To be sure, the gaze of science goes far in this regard but stops at the threshold of something invisible. In the absence of eyes to see, the Lord’s grace gives us receptacles to hear.

Pärt’s microscopic approach sees us as something more than the sum of our parts. Shouldering the vagaries of time, we drag our feet toward a light on the horizon. Its name is stillness, and we are its destroyers. Strings and voices do not so much blend as talk with one another, finding synchronicity through varying degrees of unrest. Paradise, then, lives on as an idea of its former self. And perhaps it was never anything more. It was the voice of generative silence. Only through its fall—which looms wispily at best in the violins—can we look back to our infancy.

Adam’s Lament is about lineages: of us as descendants of Adam, of our future as reflection of the decisions we make today, of that single thread still being spun from the breath of its Creator. As the newest of the present recording, it looks back on a singular catalogue of sonic truth-seeking and self-reflection. The handful of older pieces reworked thereafter shine like the inner circle of its rosette.

My soul wearies for the Lord, and I seek Him in tears.

“The feathery lightness of Beatus Petronius and, by contrast, the potency of Statuit ei Dominus are two sonic worlds,” says Pärt, “like the two sides of God, which I tried to touch, to trace in these works.” Composed in 1990 and revised in 2011, both embody the architectural wonders of their service. In offering themselves so directly, they take off their masks of freedom in search of the real thing. Their departure balances on the apex of a steeple, poised for the coming of sun and moon. In their brevity lies the secret to faith: never waste your words. Every syllable becomes a community in and of itself, bustling with activity in trade with those around it.

The Lord made to him a covenant of peace…

The composer imagines his Salve Regina (2001/2011) as a funnel, turning in progressively smaller circles until its center manifests like a dwarfed star. That he manages to evoke such cosmic brilliance in earthly terms is barely short of the miracle it so ardently expresses. It draws lines from cloud to soil in ways that transcend all obstacles. Starlight trades footprints with human history, filling each with enough hope to light the way in darkest night. Astonishment comes nowhere near to describing its effect.

To thee do we send up our sighs…

The Alleluja-Tropus (2008/2010) sets liturgical words devoted to St. Nicholas of Myra (270-345), whose relics absorbed its first performance in Bari. The refrain is key to this jagged string game of antiphony. Although short in scope, its feathers engage in a spectral bit of play as they float free of their bones toward skies clouded by ash and fear.

A rule of faith and a model of meekness…

L’Abbé Agathon (2004/2008) tells the story of St. Agathon, whose carrying of a leper—later, it turns out, a testing angel—is evoked in the music’s heavy gait toward awareness. A soprano of infirmity spills like ink across the baritone’s selfless paper. The resulting patterns are what the strings fill in. Like onlookers to moral awareness, they take in what is before them, realizing only later the folly of their inaction.

“For mercy’s sake, take me forth with you.”

The Estonian and Christmas lullabies (2002/2006) are, according to their composer, “for adults and for the child within every one of us.” Both arise as if of their own volition. The use of pause and reflection is genius, allowing us to bask in the delicacy of a border-crossing nostalgia while adding to it the lessons of our lives.

And she brought forth her firstborn son…

If Tabula rasa was a revelation and Te Deum a call to harmony, then Adam’s Lament is the birth of our Messiah, wrapped in Christ child’s swaddle. The association sets me to marvel at my own firstborn sleeping next to me as I attempt to recast this music into meager sentences, to seek in his contented face the promise of a time when the world will no longer hold a knife to its own throat. The manger smells of song, and its name is Love.


(My 2-month-old son basking in the warmth of Christmas Lullaby)

All of this puts a finger on the pulse of a divinity beyond the prescription of any religion, which necessarily flows in opposing directions as an embodiment of universal balance. Were it not for the bleakness of our transgressions, such music might never find our hearts, but simply flow through them, unnoticed, as part of the hum of Time. That it comes to us so undeniably is due to many talents, including engineers and producers. Yet we must thank above all Tõnu Kaljuste and the musicians at his cue. Their undying commitment to Pärt’s mission has yielded one of the most indomitable partnerships in music, classical or otherwise. One hardly needs to reiterate the fact that, as with every label project, Pärt participated fully in all stages of this production. His contact is palpable in what we hear, reaching for us like a grandfather we never knew we had and whispering a story into our souls. Much of that story has already been written. The rest is for us to inscribe.

(To hear samples of Adam’s Lament, click here.)

Arvo Pärt: In Principio (ECM New Series 2050)

 

Arvo Pärt
In Principio

Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir
Estonian National Symphony Orchestra
Tallinn Chamber Orchestra
Tõnu Kaljuste conductor
In principio; La Sindone; Cecilia, vergine romana recorded June 2008 at Estonia Concert Hall, Tallinn
Engineer: Teije van Geest
Recording assistant: Thomas Gärtner
Digital editing: Kohei Seguchi
Mixed by Teije van Geest, Manfred Eicher, Arvo Pärt, and Tõnu Kaljuste
Da pacem Domine, Mein Weg, Für Lennart in memoriam recorded May 2007 at Niguliste Church, Tallinn
Engineer: Margo Kõlar
Recording assistance and editing: Helena Tulve
MIxed at Rainbow Studio by Manfred Eicher, Arvo Pärt, and Jan Erik Kongshaug (engineer)
Produced by Manfred Eicher

In the beginning was the word, and in the word was sound, music, life itself. Such are the sentiments behind In principio, the title work of Arvo Pärt’s eleventh album for ECM. The label that started it all has been charting the Estonian composer’s work with devotion since 1985, when producer Manfred Eicher introduced his New Series with Tabula rasa. Because of him, we’ve been privileged to witness Pärt’s evolution as a musical thinker in a devolving world.

The eponymous 2003 work for mixed choir and orchestra bursts with a dramatic edge that sounds fresh to these ears. Its choral blast and ascendant strings seem to leap into the firmament, yet with such restraint that one hears order in every movement. The orchestral writing and performance are on point throughout, especially in the third movement, which introduces an atmosphere of lamentation. Voices spread, melting into brass chords, sustaining themselves through the nourishment of the fourth movement, in which the orchestra flashes through the darkness like a lighthouse. In this regularity one hears a touch of Philip Glass, especially in the flute of the final movement, amid a heap of faith.

The simpler Pärt’s music is, the more detailed it becomes. We can hear this in the descriptive approach of La Sindone for orchestra. Composed in 2006, it evokes (and ponders) the Shroud of Turin, where the piece received its premier performance. Moments of stunning lucidity open their eyes against the music’s gradual swell, which the orchestra handles with appropriate sensitivity. Cecilia, vergine romana (2000, rev. 2002) for mixed choir and orchestra in an ode to the eponymous patron saint of musicians. At sixteen and half minutes, it is among the album’s longer works. As such, it adopts a relatively clustered approach, shifting instrumental and vocal combinations with great vigor. One notes especially the pounding tympani, which leaves only the slightest of dents in the music’s unbreakable bonds. Next, Da Pacem Domine (2004/07) finds itself expanded from its original a cappella version to include a full choir and orchestra. The same stepwise motions are there, but the line drawn by the sopranos throughout is more profound than ever. Mein Weg (1989/99, rev. 2000) also finds itself repackaged here. Originally for organ, it is now scored for 14 strings and percussion. Ancestral wisdom paints a new dawn for every bow drawn, and finds in its revelation the path toward afterlife. Which brings us to Für Lennart in memoriam (2006), written for the funeral of late Estonian president Lennart Georg Meri. This endearing orchestral statement signs a mostly exultant program with a somber flourish.

If I had to describe Pärt’s music in one word, I would call it “non-allegorical.” This is as direct as it gets.

Silvestrov/Pärt/Ustvolskaya: Misterioso (ECM New Series 1959)

Misterioso

Alexei Lubimov piano
Alexander Trostiansky violin
Kirill Rybakov clarinet
Recorded May 2005, Historischer Reitstadel, Neumarkt
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Alexei Lubimov has been painting himself quite the somber niche in ECM’s New Series catalogue, and perhaps nowhere more so than with Misterioso. This suitably titled disc brings the Russian pianist together with two younger colleagues—clarinetist Kyrill Rybakov and violinist Alexander Trostiansky—for a program of splendid contrasts.

We begin at the end, as it were, with Valentin Silvestrov’s Post scriptum (1990) for violin and piano. Like much of the composer’s later work, it manages to sound like a quotation without, in fact, being derivative—a reference to the abyss in which the creative spirit dances. In this vastly self-referential universe, the balance between drama and gentility breathes in shadowy cascades and pizzicato afterglows. The piano acts as core, while the violin etches upon it signs of its own becoming. Between alternating contacts and separations, the piece eschews sequential development in favor of hopping reflections. Where the Andantino shows a profoundly respectful sense of melody, constructing with minimal elements a fully fleshed organism of song without words, the third and final movement picks up on the plucked themes of the first, sounding almost synthetic in its precision before total dissipation.

Silvestrov’s 1996 title composition is the most cerebral piece on the record. Scored for “solo clarinet (with piano),” the piece is dedicated to Evgeny Orkin, a musician adept at both instruments, thereby necessitating the same demands on the contemporary solo performer. What may seem on the surface an elusive piece quickly turns, however, into something geometric, even gritty. Through its protracted twenty minutes we find ourselves at an impasse of time and space. The structure is sporadic, yet bound, every sub-section joined by the barest of chains. It is the temerity of creative life and of the existence that engenders it. Delicate flutters from the clarinet speak of an era beyond the now. Breath is expelled without notes, expressing more solitude than wind. It is the base level of the utterance, a song reduced to its core constituent.

One might think there would be no need for another version of Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel (1978), but in this for clarinet and piano we find ourselves regaled anew by its simple, mirrored beauties. The faster treatment here gives it something of a romantic quality and allows it to congeal against the constant threat of silence that embraces it from all directions.

Considering the mastery encoded into every moment of Galina Ustvolskaya’s 1949 Trio for clarinet, violin and piano, it’s no wonder the piece remains one of the greatest for its combination. The dynamism of its contours bespeaks a surface tension so resilient that its fulfillment (enhanced by the unification of the album’s three musicians at last) rings genuine and unforced. A jovial sense of play is at work here, skirting an edge between exuberance and emotional turmoil. At moments the syncopation recalls Shostakovich (unsurprising, considering that Ustvolskaya was his student), making for an intense danse macabre. The central Dolce wanders like a creeping shadow into all-consuming thought, and seems to echo the beauties with which the program began, while the final movement, marked Energico, throws us into a murky spiral, crashing in a punctuation of deflated purpose.

We end with another Ustvolskaya piece, the 1952 Sonata for violin and piano. Over the course of its nearly 20-minute single movement, we listen as a staggering entity, drunk with regret, turns in on itself, stretching thin like taffy until barely connected to the breath that animates the album as a whole.

Arvo Pärt: Orient & Occident (ECM New Series 1795)

 

 

Arvo Pärt
Orient & Occident

Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra
Swedish Radio Choir
Helena Olsson soprano
Tõnu Kaljuste conductor
Recorded May 28 – June 1 2001, Berwaldhallen, Swedish Radio, Stockholm
Engineers: Jan B. Larsson, Anders Hägglöf, and Rune Sundvall
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The name of Arvo Pärt has become something of an institution in the consumer culture of classical music. The “New Spiritualism” heralded by such seminal recordings as his Tabula rasa and Te Deum crystallized a sentiment that listeners were craving in the ruins of a postmodern malaise. Yet with this music came a host of expectations: it was supposed to heal us, guide us to an inner light, and provide an inexpensive and convenient means of achieving (temporary) peace. It was something to rely upon, a sonic friend that would never leave us. In believing this, however, we began to lose sight of our own powers and the tremendous dependence we were placing upon recorded media to wrestle with moral dilemmas in our stead. Beautiful and, yes, spiritual though these media are, they can never be a substitute for the enlightenment we read into them.

The frame of Orient & Occident captures the dark side of Pärt’s compositional moon. Stand too close to it, and its darkness overwhelms; too far and it becomes a mere block of shadow. Wallfahrtslied (Pilgrim’s Song), a German setting of Psalm 121, positions us at a median distance and allows us to appreciate the best of both worlds. Composed in 1984 in memory of the composer’s close friend, Estonian director Grigori Kromanov, and since revised for men’s choir and strings, it is a harrowing slice of emotion. The music seems to grit its teeth in a slow, seething discontinuation as voices lay themselves at the orchestral altar. Strings try to remain passive, yet cannot help but break free from their subordinate position with cries of supplication. Before long, they stretch themselves into the thinnest of layers, through which one may see the translucence of the “self” and the “other” and acknowledge that the same light passes through and gives both substance.

The seven-minute title composition, penned in 2000, is for strings only and continues the path that Pärt first began laying with Psalom and Trisagion. It is a grand statement, to be sure, but works its effect through tiny sonic miracles and primes us for the sojourn that awaits us in Como cierva sedienta (1998), a Spanish setting of Psalms 42-43 for women’s choir and orchestra. Exquisite winds recall 1989’s Miserere and rock like a cradle for soprano soloist Helena Olsson’s spiraling invocations. This is music firmly entrenched in its surroundings, while also content to break free from its compulsory resolutions. Strictly choral passages add pastoral unrest. Words tumble out of their own volition, filled with outbursts and infectious proclamations. Like the soul in this final Psalm, downcast even in the light of salvation, I realize that I fall into traps only of my own making. Every time I pull myself out of one, I am reminded that sounds like these are more than incidental to that struggle. Rather, they embody it to the fullest, a collective reminder of the physicality of living experience and the lessons it provides.

The title of Pärt’s eighth ECM album makes me think of colonialism and its feeble justifications for subversion. That being said, I don’t think this is what the music is about. It deals instead with the gap that links these two words and the sacrifices that fill it with song. It is the blood flowing through that emptiness, and we the plunger pulling back to suction out the contagion of enslavement that prevents us all from staring into the face of love.

Arvo Pärt: Tabula rasa (Special Edition)

 

Tabula rasa SE

Arvo Pärt
Tabula rasa

Gidon Kremer violin
Keith Jarrett piano
Staatsorchester Stuttgart
Dennis Russell Davies conductor
The 12 Cellists of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Tatjana Grindenko violin
Alfred Schnittke prepared piano
Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra
Saulius Sondeckis conductor
Recorded October 1983, Basel; January 1984, Stuttgart; February 1984, Berlin; November 1977, Bonn
Engineers: Heinz Wildhagen, Peter Laenger, Eberhard Sengpiel, and Dieter Frobeen
Produced by Manfred Eicher

“The complex and many-faceted only confuses me, and I must search for unity. What is it, this one thing, and how do I find my way to it? Traces of this perfect thing appear in many guises—and everything that is unimportant falls away.”
–Arvo Pärt (photo courtesy of The Sonic Spread)

The composer
On 11 September 2010, Arvo Pärt welcomed his 75th year. To celebrate this milestone, ECM has rereleased its first New Series album in a special deluxe edition. When it first appeared in 1984, hardly anyone outside the composer’s native Estonia could have known what to expect from this modest cover of muted pastel and block lettering, but Tabula rasa has since taken on a life of its own. Yet behind the iconicity, word-of-mouth marketing, and a few choice celebrity endorsements (not least among them, R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe), Pärt’s music remains as it is: reverence in sonic form.

Paide Castle (photo by Liene Strautmane-Kaze)

Born in the small town of Paide, just outside of Tallinn, Pärt took his first musical steps at age seven and was already composing by his teens. He would later study with Heino Eller at Tallinn Conservatory, where he was characterized as one who “just seemed to shake his sleeves and notes would fall out.” The sixties found him at a critical juncture in his creative life. Disillusioned by the serialism with which his early works engaged, and which had earned him the red pen of Soviet censors, he fell into silence and personal reformation. According to biographer Paul Hillier, this silence has been the alpha and omega of his subsequent musical output. It is the silence of death, a reminder of our spiritual origins and of life’s fragility. Out of this nexus arose his signature “tintinnabuli” style, which finds its harmonic roots in the overtones of the struck bell. One finds its power in every note, and through an allegiance so delicate it knows no other shelter than the human heart.

Tabula rasa original
Original cover
(ECM New Series 1275)

The music
Of the significant body of Pärt’s works represented by ECM, this album came relatively late in my listening. Nevertheless, its visceral power and openness to interpretation have yet to wane, for it has only grown with me. It is 1 a.m. as I sit alone in my study, listening to this seminal recording once again. I find myself filled with words but faithful to none of them. Each seems to go right through the music’s liquid surface.

We are graced with two strikingly different variations of Fratres. One of Pärt’s most successful compositions, it exists in many versions. The first represented here is for violin and piano (1980). The combined intuition of Gidon Kremer and Keith Jarrett shades this interpretation with frail determination. What begins as an energetic swoon of arpeggios soon coalesces into a dirge of heartrending poignancy in which pizzicato bursts puncture the visual landscape like dying flames. These percussive rituals are common to all incarnations of Fratres, and act as tactile pedal points. Passages bordering on the vocal swoop down to graze the piano’s gravid footsteps, even as we watch from a place neither near nor far. This is a space in which our ears and our emotions become one, and in this respect Fratres is an anthem for the spirit unafraid to drink its own tears. Title aside, for me there is something divinely maternal about this piece, especially as played by the 12 celli (1982) heard two tracks later. This version brings to light a clearer sense of the piece’s mathematical anatomy. The low grumbles of the piano are replaced here with the tapping of cello bodies. The air inside them is heard on its own terms, unfettered by the strings that lay just outside its escape routes. The cellists begin in whispers before proclaiming their tentative motif with due conviction. Each mirrored descent is a caress in a restless night, the knocking of wood like a boat listing slowly in darkening waters.

Bowing humbly between these two “brethren” is the Cantus In Memory Of Benjamin Britten (1977), a rarer secular piece from Pärt, who once said, “I have discovered that it is enough when a single note is beautifully played. This one note, or a silent beat, or a moment of silence, comforts me.” Nowhere is this truer than here, where a single tubular bell sounds that single note (an A) throughout, reflecting both the tonal and emotional veins of the piece. Having the score before me also reveals the silent beats that circumscribe the piece. Like the dead space between stars, this silence breathes with the potential for creation. Thematically the music is laid bare and layered with dizzying resolution, the sympathetic bell ringing as if from a great void. As homage to a composer in whom Pärt sought a kindred spirit, Cantus thrives with anguish and adoration. In its brief five minutes, it manages to reach past the listener into a realm where personhood is no longer relevant and music thrives on its own performance.

With Tabula rasa (1977), Pärt does more than wipe the proverbial slate clean, but spins from that same emptiness an open web of tangible effects. The title is both philosophy and mantra. Structurally speaking, none could be more appropriate. Violins circle one another like birds in flight before being awestruck by the haunting chimes of a prepared piano (played by the late Alfred Schnittke). Each successive eruption is deeper than the last, carrying with it the ghost of all that has come before. This piece is famous for having boggled its musicians on paper (“Where’s the music?” they are said to have cried), so bare did the score seem to them before being committed to fingers and bows. But once the music was given voice, it was clear that what had originally appeared porous was in fact pregnant with life-affirming rapture. Tabula rasa undergoes a dramatic change in its latter half as the violins begin to fade into the surrounding architecture. The carillon-like refrain of the prepared piano drops a child’s handful of crystals into water, naked and unassuming while also strangely coercive. By the end we are left in the company of solemn double basses, whose commentary seems but an afterthought to an experience that lies just beyond the grasp of words.

Open Tabula

 

The book
In his original accompanying essay, Wolfgang Sandner describes the music on Tabula rasa as a “curious union of historical master-craftsmanship and modern ‘gestus.’” The same might be said of this handsome Special Edition. Housed in a 200-page hardcover book, the album is given the royal treatment with full study scores for all four works therein, two facsimile autographs of its title work and Cantus, and a new introductory essay by Paul Griffiths. As an artifact it is a tangible intersection of passionate commitment to detail from all angles.

The scores in particular offer even non-musicologists vast insight into their inner workings. We see clearly before us the peaks and valleys of Fratres in chamber form, and the drone strung below its cello counterpart like a safety net. We see also the cosmic structure of the Cantus, like binary stars bound by mortality. And we can experience for ourselves that confrontation with emptiness that must have so perplexed the first interpreters of Tabula rasa. A cursory glance reveals further shades of understanding. For example, we find that, in Part 1 (“Ludus”), sometimes only double basses accompany the two violinists with no noticeable loss of orchestral density, and each ascent on the prepared piano in Part 2 (“Silentium”) stands out like a stairway into light.

To say that Tabula rasa has held up perfectly would be misleading, for it would imply that it possesses physical substance to be upheld. As a whole this album is more about spaces: of mourning, of self-reflection, of impermanence, of privacy in a violent world, of virtue and history, of weakness and flesh, and ultimately of life itself. It is the undoing of forced representation. It is the challenge of confession. It is the hardship of conflict and the joy of affirmation. It is the silent rendered audible, and the audible rendered silent.

It is you.
It is I.
It is.