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.

<< Pierre Favre Ensemble: Singing Drums (ECM 1274)
>> Keith Jarrett: Trio Changes (ECM 1276)

Arvo Pärt: Kanon pokajanen (ECM New Series 1654/55)


Arvo Pärt
Kanon pokajanen

Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir
Tõnu Kaljuste conductor
Recorded June 1997 at Niguliste Church, Tallinn
Engineer: Teije van Geest
Produced by Manfred Eicher

I have lived my life wantonly on earth and have delivered my soul to darkness. But now I implore Thee, O merciful Lord, free me from this work of the enemy and give me the knowledge to do Thy will.

Of all the music to have graced the digital grooves of ECM’s ongoing relationship with Arvo Pärt, these settings of the Russian Orthodox Canon of Repentance to Our Lord Jesus Christ in its entirety stand out as the pinnacle of his craft. On second thought, perhaps “stand out” is the wrong analogy, for if anything the music of Kanon pokajanen comports itself through kneeling and supplication. Completed in 1997 in commemoration of the 750th anniversary of Cologne Cathedral, it was premiered the following year by its dedicatees, Tõnu Kaljuste conducting the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, who also perform it here to humble perfection. Sung entirely in Church Slavonic, the Kanon is structured as follows:

Ode I
Ode IV
Ode V
Ode VI
Ode IX
Prayer after the Canon

Ode II has no text and drops out as the silent number. The remaining Odes are introduced by an irmos, which acts as a link between word blocks, followed by four troparia, or hymnal stanzas, of which the last is always the Theotokion, or Hymn to Mary. The “intermezzo hymns” between Odes III/IV and VI/VII provide a summary function, not unlike a recap episode in a long-running series, except that here they are full-fledged episodes in and of themselves, each its own hue in the emerging aural ikon. The Kontakion and its Ikos are deeply rooted in the act of reading, as in the ways in which these hymns would normally be chanted, while the final prayer serves to close the circle in preparation for Communion. The lifeblood of the text is its refrain of “Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me,” which circulates like an involuntary reflex of the spiritual body.

If there is a more heart-stopping, transportive moment in all of choral literature than the opening proclamation, I have yet to hear it. Sung with such passion in every single voice and rising in a collective exhalation of Godly energies, it never fails to halve me to my core. On the whole, the sound palette of the Kanon varies from barely harmonized periodic elements to full-blown organic compounds. Antiphonal glue holds the most fragile texts together in preparation for glorious leaps of faith, such as the passage in Ode III during which tenors and altos soar over a beautifully sustained drone. Ode VI is another notable moment, featuring cosmic ambulation between women’s voices over a deep cantus firmus. It is a vital motif, rocking between Heaven and Earth with baptismal impact. And one will be hard pressed to forget the doubling male soloists of the Ikos, which always haunts me long after its brief traversal. The tearfully arranged Prayer after the Canon distills the thematic energy even further, drawing with its pigments an image of such careful self-immolation that only silence can offer itself as palimpsest.

The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir is as much a treasure as the one who has provided them such bounty. They handle every note as the holy relic that it is, passed down through the ages and translated in song so that others may touch it without degrading its surface. The altos in particular emit an outstanding richness of tone. The recording space is potently reverberant, drawing out every pause like a comet’s tail. Listening to this music, one comes to appreciate the choral qualities of Pärt’s instrumental pieces as well. And while those have received plenty of deserved attention, Kanon pokajanen is a must-listen for anyone wishing to hear the Estonian visionary in his most enlightened state of grace. The music is almost too powerful, such that listening to the entire album in one sitting can be a draining experience, faced as we are with the prospect of returning to a secular world once its last ghost leaves our ears.

If language is, as the composer himself professes, for him a constant “point of departure,” then nowhere is it so intensely communicative than in the Kanon. Anyone who fears that Pärt’s music was a passing fad in an era craving spiritually minded music for the weary masses need look no further than this heavenly spool from which a thread has tied itself around us before we even press PLAY. You may just find something new that has resided in your soul all along.

Arvo Pärt: Symphony No. 4 (ECM New Series 2160)

Symphony No. 4

Arvo Pärt
Symphony No. 4

Los Angeles Philharmonic
Esa-Pekka Salonen conductor
Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir
Tõnu Kaljuste conductor
Symphony No. 4:
Concert recording January 2009, Walt Disney Hall, Los Angeles
Engineer: Fred Vogler
Producers: Bruce Leek and Fred Vogler
Kanon pokajanen:
Recorded June 1997, Niguliste Church, Tallinn
Engineer: Teije van Geest
Produced by Manfred Eicher

…grace and pardon are all the more necessary as the laws are absurd and the sentences are cruel…
–Cesare Beccaria

Arvo Pärt’s Symphony No. 4 “Los Angeles” (2008) was the result of a Los Angeles Philharmonic Association joint commission. The symphony is dedicated to Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a Russian political prisoner in whose moral steadfastness Pärt found inspiration for the present work. Says the Estonian composer, “The tragic tone of the symphony is not a lament for Khodorkovsky, but a bow to the great power of the human spirit and human dignity.” Compared to his earlier symphonies (an almost 40-year gap separates this and the Third), the Fourth is transparent in being scored for string orchestra, harp, timpani, and percussion, and all the more transcendent for it. That being said, there is a certain weightiness here not to be found in the others, achievable only through the modest means by which he breaches its many sound barriers. Here, Pärt has taken seeds from his more recent works for strings and cultivated them into a near-silent, looming forest. In the capable hands of Esa-Pekka Salonen, conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic in this premier live performance, we can be sure that we are hearing every leaf of that forest humming with fervent ceremony.

The symphony takes a tripartite structure. “Con sublimità” opens us to a stretch of high strings, at once stratospheric and subterranean. A struck triangle drops like a feather onto this cosmic pond. Rather than evoke such an image and leave it at that, Pärt traces each ripple outward to the very fringes of our ken. Timpani introduce a mournful strain for the movement’s latter half. “Affannoso” is brought to life by deeply resonant pizzicato clusters, which recur like insistent memories that never quite materialize. At times, these interrupt more protracted bowings, while at others they ride a tectonic shift of mallet percussion. The metallic sheen of a brushed cymbal arcs over a bowed reinstatement of the pizzicato theme. A quote transposed from Psalom makes a ghostly cameo, bleeding into the rumbling of a distant storm and its attendant tubular bells. More plucked strings etch their thoughts across sheets of glassine chords in “Deciso” before a martial rhythm (echoing Pärt’s Te Deum) rides in sideways. The violins stand on their tiptoes, reaching for a cloud that isn’t there, only to realize that in this new space there is infinite possibility.

Based on the Russian Orthodox “Canon to the Guardian Angel,” the Fourth Symphony is Pärt’s first major engagement with canonic texts since 1997’s Kanon pokajanen. Hence, its pairing with fragments from the selfsame work. If the inexpressible repentant beauties of the Kanon were almost too potent to bear in their entirety, in this 15-minute redaction we find ourselves no less overwhelmed by the force of their texts, which push us into a chasm of divine trust like no other. Still, the Fourth Symphony is as much an invocation as this vocal counterpart, for it takes the same air into its lungs and blows it across the fields in all of us.

The Walt Disney Concert Hall is one of the world’s finest acoustical achievements, and its benefits are put to fullest advantage here. Every echo resolves itself with the smoothest dissolution in a delicate balance of fire and ice. Blessedly, the applause on this recording is elided in favor of a seamless transition from one “choir” to another, lest the spell be broken.

Arvo Pärt: Litany (ECM New Series 1592)


Arvo Pärt

The Hilliard Ensemble
David James countertenor
Rogers Covey-Crump tenor
John Potter tenor
Gordon Jones baritone
Tallinn Chamber Orchestra
Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir
Tõnu Kaljuste conductor
Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra
Saulius Sondeckis conductor
Recorded September 1995, Niguliste Church, Tallinn
Engineer: Teije van Geest

Drawing from the writings of St. John Chrysostum (c. 349-407), whose prayers for daily hours comprise the font from which Arvo Pärt anoints this musical setting, the Estonian composer spins a soft thread of light with limited information. Like the equally visceral settings of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff before him, Pärt’s is utterly moving and uniquely colored by the sensitivity of his instrumental writing, such as listeners have encountered in his Miserere and Passio. The voices of Litany seem to arise out of their orchestral surroundings as if they have been hiding within it and are only now choosing to reveal themselves. Such is the effect of the Hilliard Ensemble’s unity throughout. Tubular bells and horns make their presence known. Subtle clues from orchestra and choir announce the hours as women’s voices pour their glorious shine like starlight from an alabaster jar. Philip Glassean punctuations of winds enhance the spell. The volume builds, only to subside, returning to the silence of a head bowed in contemplation. Under the guidance of Tõnu Kaljuste, the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra and Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, along with the Hilliard Ensemble, have given us a most selfless reading of this masterful composition.

Following this are two pieces performed by the Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra at the baton of Saulius Sondeckis, under whose direction the world at large was first introduced to the music of Arvo Pärt through ECM’s Tabula Rasa. Originally conceived as a string quartet, Psalom emerges here as one of the composer’s most heartrending pieces for strings, second perhaps only to Silouans Song. Each phrase is lifted before it fades, blurring “vocal” lines like breath in winter air. Trisagion also takes its inspiration from St. John Chrysostum. Like a landmass over time, it falls into the inevitability of erosion, so that only the abstract remains untouched by the limits of tangibility. It ends on a repeated proclamation that would be overbearing in its insistence, if not for its decline in volume and number, mathematically reduced to zero.

Pacing is absolutely essential to the mood and architecture of the entire album, and this the musicians accomplish with uncanny immediacy. One of the more powerful post-Te Deum releases, Litany is sung and performed with unparalleled dedication. Countertenor David James is the perfect foil for Pärt’s anti-dualism, and emerges as the voice of reason in an unreasonable era.

<< Arvo Pärt: Alina (ECM 1591 NS)
>> Ketil Bjørnstad/David Darling: The River (ECM 1593)

Arvo Pärt: Alina (ECM New Series 1591)

Arvo Pärt

Vladimir Spivakov violin
Sergev Bezrodny piano
Alexander Malter piano
Dietmar Schwalke cello
Recorded July 1995, Festburgkirche, Frankfurt am Main
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

When this album was first released I was already a longtime listener of Arvo Pärt and quite accustomed to experiencing his sound in large-scale form. The grandiosity of other seminal ECM recordings, such as his popular Te Deum and epic Passio, left me with a vision of a composer with vast canvases to fill. Alina changed all that when I loaded it into my CD player, only to hear the most sublime understatement to ever issue from my speakers. Says Pärt, “I could compare my music to white light which contains all colours. Only a prism can divide the colours and make them appear; this prism could be the spirit of the listener.” And indeed, this album is a mise-en-abyme of airy beauty.

Tripartite structures abound in Alina.

First, they form the guiding principle of Pärt’s musical ideology, which embraces the triad as alpha and omega. It is no coincidence, then, that the album’s title piece marked the inauguration of his “tintinnabuli style,” which has since been his calling card, as it were, in a genre-hungry marketplace. Originally a two-minute piece, its extended treatment here peels away layers of possibility residing in the score. Recorded in the presence of the composer, each repetition seeks its own segue into silence.

Second, the tracks are symmetrically ordered:

1. Spiegel im Spiegel (violin and piano)
2. Für Alina (solo piano)
3. Spiegel im Spiegel (cello and piano)
4. Für Alina (solo piano)
5. Spiegel im Spiegel (violin and piano)

This rigidity ensures that any complex posturing is shunned in favor of direct communion. Despite their sparse instrumentation, the three versions of Spiegel im Spiegel comprise Pärt’s most spacious statement ever committed to disc. Each is like an edge of his metaphorical prism, bending light into hues that one can almost taste in the listening. One might easily criticize this approach as a halfhearted attempt to fill a disc were it not for the profound indeterminacy throughout. It is in this sense that the cello in the central incarnation sighs like an exhausted organ sending its final pulses straight into the heart of a period passed in quiet humility.

Third, the album is situated at the intersection of three planes of existence: the spatial, the bodily, and the vibrational. The piano’s own resonant interior speaks precisely of its external effect, thereby establishing a striking continuity between the details of its construction and the boundless receptacle that is the listener’s mind. The music speaks, because it knows no other way of communicating. It is the voice that whispers at the edge of sleep, that ever so slightly indecipherable instinct at the heart of selfless wishes.

As I listen to this album again, the patter of raindrops outside my window provides a fitting backdrop to the sheer grace of its first arpeggios. This weather lends the music a liquid shield around every note, turning each into an earthbound droplet. Alina is filled with more emptiness than substance, all the while forming through that emptiness a substance far greater than its own vocabulary can express. It enacts a unique sort of transfiguration which, through the quietude of its own coalescence, ends up turning into itself.

<< Erkki-Sven Tüür: Crystallisatio (ECM 1590 NS)
>> Arvo Pärt: Litany (ECM 1592 NS)

Arvo Pärt: Te Deum (ECM New Series 1505)

ECM 1505

Arvo Pärt
Te Deum

Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir
Tallinn Chamber Orchestra
Tõnu Kaljuste conductor
Recorded January 1993 at Lohjan Kirkko, Finland
Engineers: Peter Laenger and Andreas Neubronner
Produced by Manfred Eicher

I too repented deeply and sorrowed much that I had grieved God,
And that peace and love were lost on earth because of my sin.
My tears ran down my face.
My breast was wet with my tears, and the earth under my feet;
And the desert heard the sound of my moaning.
–Staretz Silouan

It was a balmy evening on the 30th of October, 1995, as I and a throng of eager listeners filed into the Trinity College Chapel in Hartford, Connecticut. On the program: the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra. It is an experience not even a lobotomy could erase from my memory. Bathed in the Chapel’s cascading acoustics, the musicians sounded nothing short of revelatory. Being in their presence after only recently having discovered the music of Arvo Pärt allowed me to appreciate at an even more visceral level the utter dedication represented by their combined forces. Whatever was in the air was beyond magic. The stillness of our hearts was surely palpable. That these brilliant singers and instrumentalists had traveled so far, carrying with them a most glorious music and message, was a miracle to me. I doubt that a single soul in that space felt anything less than all-consuming gratitude for the opportunity afforded to them.

Pärt’s Te Deum was the centerpiece of a program that also included works by Veljo Tormis, Einojuhani Rautavaara, J. S. Bach, and more from Pärt himself. While one can hardly compare the live experience to the recorded one, by no means is this album a lesser organism. The piece’s emergence hinges on a prerecorded wind harp, tuned to notes D and A, providing a constant drone that flirts with our awareness. (During the concert, I noted a few in the audience craning their necks to see where the sound was coming from, leading me to believe they were hearing it for the first time. I can only imagine what it must have been like to have one’s inaugural experience of the Te Deum in such a context, and I like to think it only added to the mystery of it all, as if hallucinating an indefinable voice from the very rock beneath their feet.) After the main “theme” is laid out, the strings climb to life from low to high registers, almost like a death throe in reverse—a resurrection, if you will. As Pärt himself explains, he felt it necessary to “draw this music gently out of silence and emptiness.” And so do we encounter hushed moments that are never entirely removed from their backdrop. To these subtle orchestral energies, Pärt adds three choirs and a prepared piano. The non-vocal instruments are like the gospel writer—or, in Pärt’s case, the composer—weaving new patterns from tattered post-Messianic threads. Text and music work in tandem, at times uniting in exultant crescendos (what theologian Frank Church Brown calls “radical transcendence”), while at others circling the central line of tintinnabular consciousness like a prophet’s quill. The piece ends with reiterations of “Sanctus” in triplicate over a sustained chord on strings, underscoring the holiness of the musical act therein. I was in tears by the end of the 1995 performance, so moved was I by the intensity of the living, breathing entity that sang through every fiber of my physical and psycho-spiritual being. I found myself floating, holding on to my earthly existence by the thinnest of tethers. At the same time, I could not deny my own gravidity, looking deep as I was into the self and finding solace in the delicate balance that is mortality. Anything that I had ever lost in life had been either regained or forgotten at that moment in favor of less tangible possessions. Neither could I help but be overwhelmed by the fact that, after chancing upon this music through the airwaves, I should be able to witness it physically, experiencing its sheer volume in the blessing of real time. The Te Deum is a statement on statement, a quantification of the utterance via the merest particle of its articulation. In reading so humbly into his sources, Pärt has rendered inspiration palatable through his own sense of hymnal adoration. One is hard-pressed to reconstruct the Te Deum for those who have yet to peer through its many windows. And though no review, however voluminous, does it a modicum of justice, I can only hope these words at least begin to express its potential effect.

Next on the album is Silouans Song, an especially moving piece for string orchestra and another I had the great fortune of hearing during the same concert. The piece is dedicated to Archimandrite Sophrony, a disciple of Staretz Silouan (1866-1938), who led a monastic life in the Russian Monastery of St. Panteleimon on Mount Athos starting in 1892. Staretz is a title given to a monk “whose God-given wisdom and insight enable him to serve as a spiritual guide for others.” And what better way to express such a life than through his musical equivalent? The melodies are drawn directly from Silouan’s psalmnodic writings, and their basis in the written word engenders a sacred sort of engagement with the listener. As one of Pärt’s most unflinching statements of faith, Silouans Song rings true as a profession of the spiritual life.

And then there is the Magnificat, an achievement that is beyond words precisely because words are its alpha and omega. The depth of Pärt’s pacing and his attention to breath and pause all forge a most distinct path toward a consciousness in which one need no longer carry the burden of self-aggrandizement. There is a stunning climax in which the tenor rises above the rest at the end of the line “Suscepit Israel puerum suum” (He hath received Israel his servant). During the choir’s performance of this piece, Kaljuste lifted his trembling hand to draw that very note forth with even greater urgency. It is an image I always carry with me when listening to it.

Closing out this vibrant album is the Berliner Messe, a profound statement of Pärt’s liturgical persuasion. Originally for SATB soloists and organ, and later (as recorded here) for mixed chorus and strings, it interpolates into the standard mass text two stunning Alleluias and a Veni Sancte Spiritus, the latter being a Pentacostal text that welcomes the redeeming qualities of the Holy Spirit. The axial Credo molds a shape not unlike his earlier Summa, while the final Agnus Dei withers like a flower in slow motion into static resolution.

Te Deum stands as one of ECM’s most enduring testaments to the powerful symbiosis between sound and silence. With this recording, label and composer transformed the aural landscape of this one faithful listener. It is unique in my life for so many reasons, from the banal (it is the only ECM recording I ever owned first on cassette) to the sacred (its sounds reformed my worldview in a way no other music has). This is a recording to change lives and one that will forever stand the test of time, for it is time incarnate.

<< The Hilliard Ensemble: Codex Speciálník (ECM 1504 NS)
>> Kim Kashkashian: Lachrymae (ECM 1506 NS)

Arvo Pärt: Miserere (ECM New Series 1430)


Arvo Pärt

The Hilliard Ensemble
David James countertenor
Rogers Covey-Crump tenor
John Potter tenor
Gordon Jones baritone
Paul Hillier director
Orchester der Beethovenhalle Bonn
Western Wind Chamber Choir
Dennis Russell Davies conductor
Sarah Leonard soprano
Christopher Bowers-Broadbent organ
Pierre Favre percussion
Recorded September 1990, St. Jude-on-the-Hill, London (Miserere, Sarah Was Ninety Years Old)
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Recorded December 1990 at Beethovenhalle, Bonn (Festina Lente)
Engineers: Peter Laenger and Andreas Neubronner
Produced by Manfred Eicher

For reasons perhaps too numerous to list here in full, Arvo Pärt’s Miserere remains my most cherished of the Estonian composer’s ever-growing book of masterworks. Suffice it to say that its magic lies in its stillness. For such an expansive piece—scored as it is for choir, soloists, organ, and ensemble—it is remarkably introspective. Its opening invocation of Psalm 51 fleshes out a corpus of spoken language made melody. A statement from the clarinet follows every word, not so much commentative as dialogic. Once harmony is introduced in the second vocal line, the pauses become even more gravid and rich in spatial detail. The soloists gather up all remaining threads, persevering through mounting tensions with the blunt instrument that is the interjected “Dies irae.” This is more than just a thunderous meditation. It is a wringing-out of the heavens, the earth a mouth gaping to catch all that drips down. Voices burst like supernovas around thunderous timpani, crashing into the oceans until only a tubular bell is left to caress the newly razed soil. The heartfelt baritone of Gordon Jones describes the ruins with mellifluous sensitivity. A wind section breathes through every pause like a ghostly antiphon and provides a dark interlude. As the soloists arise en masse, David James flares with his resplendent countertenor colors, whereas the deep intonation of soprano Sarah Leonard marvels amid the fumes of destruction. Another stunning interlude, this time introduced by Christopher Bowers-Broadbent on organ, coaxes the winds into more independent recitations, accentuated by a crystalline tambourine and triangle. We arrive to an a cappella passage that is transfiguration incarnate, each soloist pawing the air like a sleeping lion. The winds slog through the valleys, heavy sins in tow, while voices linger in the firmament. Leonard is unmatched in her ability to put her entire being into a high note, and the moment one finds at the 30:13 mark is perhaps her finest example. This touches off one of the most breathtaking lifts ever set to music, as all the voices scale a ladder of chaos into a world of silent order. Miserere is all about the “in between,” the lesson of interrupted thought, and our fearful awe over the mystery of creation.

Festina Lente (1988) for orchestra and harp is dedicated to Manfred Eicher. The title means “make haste slowly” and acknowledges the importance of flux in any creative endeavor. Like Eicher’s own aesthetic path, it is a resonant spiral that goes both downward and upward.

Awe is the operative concept in Sarah Was Ninety Years Old (1977/90). Drums cycle through an arithmetic exploration of high and low beats, cradling wordless passages from tenors Rogers Covey-Crump and John Potter. This process repeats until the organ makes its humble entrance, even as Leonard pushes her voice to dizzying heights. One would think such a piece might escape today’s trigger-happy musical culture, but I have recently encountered the drums from Sarah, as effective as they are surprising, being sampled by German electronic artist HECQ in his track “Aback,” off the wonderful album Night Falls.

This disc has been with me for nearly half my life. The Miserere in particular drew me into a love of singing. As a teenager I used to spend hours singing along alternately with the baritone and alto lines until the booklet yellowed and nearly fell apart from excessive handling (I even went so far as to purchase a backup, just so I would have a pristine copy on my shelf). After so much physiological engagement with its textual and aural shapes, it has become an integral part of my person. Listening reminds me that with each new step I take on the path to independence, I grow closer to who I have always been: a human soul sustained by all others in a world where time is infinitely malleable, and the only thing that’s real is my surrender to the moment.

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>> Christopher Bowers-Broadbent: Trivium (ECM 1431 NS)

Christopher Bowers-Broadbent: Trivium (ECM New Series 1431)


Christopher Bowers-Broadbent organ
Recorded October 1990, Grossmünster, Zürich
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

I am a rider without mount, an ocean without waves, a horizon without dawn, nailed to myself, nailed to an absence in time which, after me, becomes the time of absence.
–Edmond Jabés, The Book of Questions

Avid Arvo Pärt listeners will be more than familiar with the profound talents of Christopher Bowers-Broadbent. The English organist has long held contemporary music in high regard, and has enriched the liturgical landscape with numerous commissions as well as his own compositions. With such a wealth of music available at the tips of his fingers (and toes), Bowers-Broadbent was faced with a daunting task: namely, crafting a personal take on music’s creative intimacy through one of its most leviathan instruments. The end result is, in his own words, a “performance about time and space.” As such, the reach, not the fleeting emotional effect, of his selections becomes paramount. Rather than lay out a program of short, varied pieces, he has turned inward, finding in the works of only three composers enough to describe a universe of ideas.

He first unveils the night sky with a quartet of pieces by Arvo Pärt. Trivium (1988) is like a constellation burning silently for our scrutiny. What remains flat on the stargazer’s map becomes three-dimensional in Bowers-Broadbent’s care. As with Pärt’s other tintinnabular quests, Trivium is both explorer and the landscape being explored. Its powerful middle section connotes a triune infrastructure, embodying the balance of divine order in every disturbance. The steady pulse of Mein Weg hat Gipfel und Wellentäler (1989) breathes with earthly lungs, even as it cradles a heart that can only be seen with a telescope. Its path stays true to the peaks and valleys of its title, taken from a poem by Edmond Jabés (Pärt would later rescore this piece in a version for strings and percussion that can be found on the ECM recording In Principio). Annum per annum (1980) is structured like a mass and brings that same sort of complementary vision to its stark dynamic contrasts. Pari Intervallo, composed in 1981, layers intonations in the higher register over a slow chromatic sway of transfiguration.

We are slowly brought back into our bodies with two of three voluntaries composed by Peter Maxwell Davies in 1976. These arrangements of sixteenth-century Scottish hymns seem to unpack, in a brief span of time, the mystery of faith. With enigmatic precision, Psalm 124 (after David Peebles) traces the contours of God’s raging waters with a touch of resignation, glorying in the safety of grace and retribution, while O God Abufe (after John Fethy) expresses even more succinctly the awe of a prayerful mind.

By the time we arrive at the final two pieces, each a spectacular arrangement of music by Philip Glass, we are well primed for the metamorphoses implied therein. Satyagraha renders the finale of Act III from the selfsame opera into a whirling dervish of stratospheric proportions. One can almost feel the air coursing through the organ’s pipes with every recapitulation. Dance IV, on the other hand, is a more extroverted piece that populates its periphery with movement and attractive forces. It ecstatically forms the center of the album’s galactic structure, drawing in countless voices until it reaches critical mass.

Bowers-Broadbent has the uncanny ability to take music that is seemingly histrionic and forge from it a host of instinctual meanings. From the wafting strains of Pärt’s sublime prostrations to the enlivening regularity of Glass’s exuberant leaps, we are treated at every moment to an august evocation of music for its own sake. All too often, it seems, organ recitals fall under our radar. Albums like this become the radar, and we the blips upon its screen: transient yet unmistakably there.

<< Arvo Pärt: Miserere (ECM 1430 NS)
>> Anouar Brahem: Barzakh (ECM 1432)