Estonian composer Arvo PÃ¤rt (born in 1935; he turned 70 on Sept. 11) has found considerable success with his austere style. After first gaining notice as a Serialist composer incorporating stylistic collage, he took two sabbaticals, partly because the Soviet government approved of neither his Serial tendencies nor his religiousity, partly to rethink his style. Starting in 1976, he pioneered a lean, meditative style he dubbed Tintinnabuli (think of lots of bells chiming). It's connected to Minimalism's roots in "process" and to Serial techniques, with Gregorian and Russian Orthodox chant tinging the melodic content; Renaissance and Baroque polyphony were already important even during his Serialist period. Since moving to the West in 1980, he's produced a series of works setting religious and liturgical texts. He also loosened the strictures of the process-based technique he had started using in 1976.
Producer Manfred Eicher was so intrigued by PÃ¤rt's music that his jazz label, ECM, formed a classical division, New Series, specifically to issue it, starting with Tabula Rasa in 1984. The broad following of ECM has brought PÃ¤rt more listeners than most modern classical composers receive. The last few ECM albums of PÃ¤rt's music were good but inessential. Not this one! This disc, his eleventh on ECM, boasts premiere recordings of new music (one- and two-year-old pieces). First comes a short choral piece, â€œDa pacem Domine,â€ performed by the Hilliard Ensemble. PÃ¤rtâ€™s setting of this ninth-century Gregorian antiphon text combines tintinnabulation and medieval music in one of his most gorgeous choral works yet â€“ and thatâ€™s saying something.
The big news, though, is the title track, a major work for piano and orchestra (Alexei Lubimov and the SWR Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andrey Boreyko). PÃ¤rt describes it as â€œa lamento â€“ not for the dead, but for the livingâ€¦strugging with the pain and hopelessness of this world.â€ 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 musicâ€™s moods oscillating accordingly, until finally it ends with the piano alone, sounding an inconclusive, questioning note. PÃ¤rt may be labelled a â€œmystic minimalist,â€ but this is dramatic music with starkly powerful dynamics, along with more ruminative music of aching beauty in this new masterpiece. - Steve Holtje
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based former editor of Creem Magazine and CDNow.com, editor of the acclaimed MusicHound Jazz: The Essential Album Guide, and contributor to The Big Takeover, Early Music America, and many other hip periodicals. He is a buyer at Sound Fix, a hot new record store in Williamsburg.