After Simplicity, a Partial Return to Complexity

Arvo_Part_In_PrincipioEstonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir/Estonian National Symphony Orchestra/Tallinn Chamber Orchestra/Tanu Kaljuste
Arvo Pärt: In Principio
(ECM New Series)

I have been living with this CD for over two months now, so my reaction here is not hasty. Somebody I work with called it boring, and I wanted to make sure it would stand up to repeated listening. It does. Its lack of flash is not a fault, it's a virtue; this is noble music that unfolds majestically, but now that unfolding has more layers than it used to.

Arvo Pärt started out as an avant-gardist (my overview of his career is here); compared to his early work, his move to the tintinnabuli style he invented was very stark. But in recent years he has put more complex harmonies and textures back into his music, prominently so on his previous ECM release, Lamentate, and that combining of tintinnabuli with the denser textures of his '60s/early '70s style continues on some of the works here.

In Principio (2003) is a five-movement work for mixed chorus & orchestra. Setting the opening of the Gospel of John, it works through contrasts: brass vs. choir, tintinnabuli simplicity vs. chromatic density.

"La Sindone," inspired by the Shroud of Turin, was premiered at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin. For orchestra, it slowly enshrouds the listener in dissonant strands of sound. Aside from that metaphor, I'm not sure exactly what programmatic correspondences are intended, if any, but it is a quietly beautiful, strings-dominated piece until its brassy, regal coda.

"Cecilia, vergine roman" was written for Rome's jubilee in 2000. Early on there's an instrumental bit with clarinet (not an instrument Part uses often, much less features) that, to my surprise, brought to mind the morning section of Copland's Appalachian Spring with its glinting pastoralism. But then the textures thicken, layers of choir and brass mount, and there's a jangling apotheosis -- which then twists into new textures before gradually thinning again. This is a common feature of Pärt's music: within a great arch structure, there are multiple surges, the music's dynamics undulating. In this case, the twin climaxes in the middle are undoubtedly related to the tale of St. Cecilia, the Roman martyr who became the patron saint of musicians and Church music: her legend relates that at first, she was boiled, but that didn't kill her; then the executioner tried to behead her, but gave up after three failed attempts; in the three days of suffering before the resulting wounds killed her, Cecilia sang the praises of God. Great fodder for musical depiction.

"Da Pacem Domine" is a plea for peace written in response to the deadly 2004 terrorist attacks in the Madrid subway system. An a cappella version led off Lamentate, but there are six versions of the work (three are entirely instrumental); here we are given the first recording of the SATB chorus & orchestra arrangement.

After this, the CD winds down with two instrumental works. "Mein Weg" has the oldest origin of any work on this disc: It began as the organ work "Mein Weg hat Gipfel und Wellent" (1989); it was transcribed ten years later for 14 strings & percussion, as heard here. "Far Lennart in memoriam" (2006), for string orchestra, is an elegy for Lennart Meri, the late president of Estonia, Pärt's native land, and is a lovely conclusion to the album.

This disc doesn't rank in the highest percentile of Pärt's impressive ECM discography, it's true, but I'd say it stands firmly in the upper half of his work, and certainly in his top ten. - Steve Holtje

On May 10 at Le Poisson Rouge, the Wordless Music Orchestra will give the New York premiere of 's Symphony No. 4 "Los Angeles."

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. No prizes for guessing which pays best.

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