The Exceptional Synergy of ECM and Arvo Pärt

Arvo_PartEstonian composer Arvo Pärt (b. 1935) has become one of the most popular composers of our time. For a long time he was an obscure figure to all but the most in-the know mavens of the classical avant-garde. Then, 25 years ago, ECM owner/producer Manfred Eicher found Pärt's music so compelling that he started a classical division, New Series, to put it out (certainly no other labels were rushing to do so at the time). ECM’s marketing savvy and devoted following have provided Pärt more and hipper exposure than pretty much any classical composer who hasn’t written movie soundtracks or operas. Since 1984, a few other record labels have joined the cause, but ECM often makes the first recordings of major new Pärt compositions, the exceptions usually being choral pieces receiving their disc premieres under the direction of longtime Pärt boosters Paul Hillier (whose non-ECM work has been released by Harmonia Mundi) or Tõnu Kaljuste (an ECM stalwart who’s also recorded for Virgin Classics).

Pärt first achieved notice in the '60s as a Serialist composer also using stylistic collage. Even though he lived under Soviet Communism (until 1980, when he moved to the West) , which officially disapproved of Serialism, Nekrolog (1960), his first Serialist work, was greeted warmly because of its dedication to the victims of Fascism. His Credo (1968) was banned due to its religious text, however. He took a series of sabbaticals, in the middle of which he had a stylistic transition, and then in 1976 unveiled a spare, meditative style he calls Tintinnabuli. He says of it, "The three notes of a triad are like bells. And that is why I call it tintinnabulation." There's more to it than that, of course. It's related to Minimalism's basis in "process" and to Serial techniques (though over time he has relaxed the rigor of the procedure), while Gregorian and Russian Orthodox chant styles influence the melodic content. Since coming West and being free of government censure, he's frequently written works setting religious and liturgical texts. His first big success was instrumental, but he has given lovers of modern choral music -- in recent decades, usually an ill-served niche -- some extremely attractive and sturdily written work on both large and small scales.

What follows is an overview of his best ECM releases, in an order that balances their quality and importance. ECM's new Pärt CD, In Principio, came out today, and I will review it soon; for now, suffice it to say that I'm enjoying it very much.

1. Tabula Rasa
Gidon Kremer; Keith Jarrett; Staatsorchester Stuttgart/Dennis Russell Davies; 12 Cellists of Berlin Philharmonic; Tatjana Grindenko; Alfred Schnittke; Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra/Saulus Sondeckis

This 1984 release was ECM's first Pärt album, and thus the mainstream's primary introduction to his music. It has three highly representative 1977 instrumental works in his Tintinnabuli style. Tabula Rasa, for two violins, prepared piano, and chamber orchestra, is the greatest of them, a gently undulating, slowly turning spiral of sound, "Fratres" exists in at least seven different arrangements; here it's heard in versions for violin and piano (Gidon Kremer and Keith Jarrett) and for cellos (the 12 cellos of the Berlin Philharmonic). "Cantus in memory of Benjamin Britten" is an aptly somber work. This disc remains a wonderful entry into Pärt's distinctive musical world.

2. Te Deum
Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir/Tallinn Chamber Orchestra/Tõnu Kaljuste

This disc includes two of Pärt's most beautiful choral works. The a cappella Magnificat setting from 1989 is especially interesting for its clear demonstration of one of Pärt's rhythmic techniques; though his writing has none of the strong, steady pulsing of American Minimalism, it maintains interest and avoids being static through its non-repetition of note values (aside from quarter notes, consecutive values don't repeat here), keeping the rhythms from becoming square. The Berliner Messe written in 1990-92 (in the version with orchestral accompaniment) has a similar style and is equally mellifluous. Also heard are “Silouans Song” and the title track.

3. Kanon Pokajanen
Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir/Tõnu Kaljuste

Kanon Pokajanen is a massive 11-movement piece, an 83-minute setting for a cappella choir of the canon of repentance, an ancient text in Church Slavonic. Pärt apparently bases his rhythms on the speech rhythms of the text, and the resulting stop-start motion of strings of short notes framed by longer notes recalls chant without copying its shape. Strong declarative moments such as the opening of the second movement, with a moving line opposed to a pedal tone, recall similar effects in much Russian Orthodox choral writing, but there are also those trademark Pärt moments when quiet sections seem to float up from the music and hang high in the dome of a cathedral. It helps, of course, that as usual ECM provides gorgeously rich, reverberant sound without sacrificing clarity.

4. Passio
Hilliard Ensemble/Western Wind/Paul Hillier

The 1982 composition Passio Domini Nostrum Jesu Christi secumdum Joannem, AKA St. John Passion, but given a more marketable album title by ECM, foregoes the overt drama of many other Passion settings in favor of a more ceremonial, austere, ancient-sounding approach that suggests a Minimalist Stravinsky. At 70 minutes, it works through the narrative quickly relative to more traditional Passions, although "quick" will not likely be a word that will occur to listeners as Pärt slowly spools out the music in his typical fashion. Yet the modal simplicity is compelling in this context, suggesting an unshakeable solidity of belief.

5. Litany
Hilliard Ensemble/Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir/Tallinn Chamber Orchestra/Tõnu Kaljuste; Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra/Saulius Sondeckis

One of Pärt's more massively scored pieces, Litany sets the hourly prayers of St. John Chrysostom, but non-liturgically uses orchestral accompaniment along with bells. Still, most of the time it's intimately hushed, with full-orchestra power reserved for big climaxes. Some stark dissonances keep it from New Age territority, but it's not off-putting either. The two orchestral pieces Psalom and Trisagion frame it nicely while filling out the disc's time.

6. Miserere; Sarah Was Ninety Years Old; Festina Lente
Hilliard Ensemble/Paul Hillier

Perhaps no piece illustrates the importance of silence in Pärt's music better than his Miserere, a 34-minute work from 1989 with a section dating back to 1976. For soloists, chorus, and instruments, it's one of his most spare compositions, with the instrumental forces deployed in tag-team rather than tutti fashion. The frequent pauses set off the vocal lines in a manner recalling chant, and lend an element of unpredictability to the progress of the piece. Sarah Was Ninety Years Old, from 1977, is less compelling but was important in the development of his Tintinnabuli style and is also one of his rare pre-1980 religious works. "Festina Lente" is a lovely orchestral adagio providing a change of pace between the vocal works.

7. Arbos; Es sang vor langen Jahren; Pari Intervallo
Hilliard Ensemble/Brass Ensemble Staatsorchester Stuttgart/Dennis Russell Davies

This was ECM's second Pärt album, and displays a variety of sounds and textures while still sticking to Tintinnabuli works. The 24-minute Stabat Mater setting is the largest and most important work, sung ethereally by three members of the Hilliard Ensemble accompanied by violin, viola, and cello. It's easily one of the most understated settings of this liturgical depiction of Mary at the Crucifixion, but paradoxically gains emotional impact as a result. The other choral pieces here -- "An den Wassern zu Babel," "De Profundis," "Summa" -- are also gorgeous and moving. "Pari Intervallo" offers a sampling of Pärt's effective writing for solo organ. The brass arrangement of "Arbos," which gives the CD its title, makes an effective fanfare.

8. Lamentate
Alexei Lubimov/SWR Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra/Andrey Boreyko

First comes a short choral piece, “Da pacem Domine,” performed by the Hilliard Ensemble. Pärt’s setting of this ninth-century Gregorian antiphon text combines tintinnabulation and medieval music in one of his most gorgeous choral works yet – and that’s saying something. The title track is a major work for piano and orchestra. Pärt describes it as “a lamento – not for the dead, but for the living…struggling with the pain and hopelessness of this world.” It opens with timpani and brass - half fanfare, half funeral oration - before the piano and strings enter with a chilling ascent. This is not a concerto; instead, the piano seems like a character moving through the changing circumstances and challenges of the world, the music’s moods oscillating accordingly, until finally it ends with the piano alone, sounding an inconclusive, questioning note. Pärt may be labeled a “mystic minimalist,” but this is dramatic music with starkly powerful dynamics, along with more ruminative music of aching beauty.

9. Trivium
Christopher Bowers-Broadbent

This contains all four of Pärt's solo organ pieces: "Trivium," "Mein Weg hat Gipfel und Wellentäler," "Annum per Annum," and "Pari Intervalli" (along with two pieces each by Peter Maxwell Davies and Phillip Glass that make interesting modernist complements). The opportunities offered by colorful organ registrations enhance the tintinnabuli style in attractive ways.

It must be noted that listeners who would like to hear Pärt's pre-tintinnabuli work -- his output before 1976 -- will not find it on ECM. It only takes two discs on the BIS label to get up to speed on the more important works of his earlier period, however, so these are offered as an addendum to our celebration of the partnership of Pärt and ECM.

Symphonies Nos. 1-3; Concerto for Cello and Orchestra "Pro et contra"; Perpetuum mobile
Frans Helmerson; Bamberg Symphony Orchestra/Neeme Järvi

What the above does for the period of Pärt's Tintinnabuli style, this disc does for his pre-1976 music. Symphonies Nos. 1 "Polyphonic" (1964) and 2 (1966) are 12-tone works; Perpetuum mobile (1963) also uses serial elements and, with its crescendo/decrescendo structure, is Pärt's "Bolero." Concerto for Cello and Orchestra "Pro et contra" (1966, dedicated to Mstislav Rostropovich) recalls Schnittke in its collage of styles (especially the Baroque). The Symphony No. 3 (1971) is also stylistically eclectic, looking back to the Renaissance in its final movement. These pieces may not be as popular or immediately accessible as the later Tintinnabuli works (although the Third Symphony comes close), but they are still great music by a musical mastermind.

Collage sur B-A-C-H; Credo; Wenn Bach Bienen Gezüchtet Hätte; Summa; Fratres, Symphony No. 2; Festina Lente
Boris Berman; Philharmonia Orchestra/Neeme Järvi

Though it covers music from several of Pärt's stylistic periods, this well-recorded disc is most valuable for including the early works Collage sur B-A-C-H, for strings, oboe, harpsichord, and piano (1964), and the contrast-heavy, Penderecki-influenced, Bach-quoting Credo, for piano solo, mixed choir, and orchestra (1968), so important to the path of his career but rarely heard. The equally uncommon "Wenn Bach Bienen Gezüchtet Hätte," for piano, string orchestra, and wind quintet, dates from 1976, but sounds more like a product of the previous stylistic period with the vehement buzzing of its first five minutes, although one can discern that its organization reflects Pärt's then-new approach. All the performances are excellent, in fine sound. - Steve Holtje

Arvo Pärt

Pärt's Symphony No. 4 "Los Angeles" will be premiered later this year by Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The impatient can already get an idea of the piece thanks to Universal Editions having put the score online, a most unusual and generous gesture. The New York premiere will be given on May 10 by The Wordless Music Orchestra at Le Poisson Rouge.

Steve Holtje

Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based poet and composer who splits his time between editing Culturecatch.com, working at the Williamsburg record store Sound Fix, and editing cognitive neuroscience books for Oxford University Press. He has sung (bass or tenor at different times) several of Pärt's a cappella choral pieces as a member of New Amsterdam Singers, which is when he figured out the rhythmic structure of the Magnificat.

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