Hyperion Records

Pärt, Arvo (b1935)  
© Tina Foster

Arvo Pärt

born: 11 September 1935
country: Estonia

With the extraordinary diversity of musical styles created this century, a labelling system has necessarily evolved to keep track of them all—from neo-classical, post-modern, serial and the ‘new complexity’, to more idiosyncratic, less objective classifications such as the ‘English Cowpat School’ and ‘squeaky gate’. On the great musical supermarket shelf Arvo Pärt is broadly known as a ‘mystic minimalist’. This may be a crass description, as all neat pigeon-holes tend inevitably to be, but it is as good a starting point as any for describing Pärt’s output in the 1980s and 90s.

It is significant that his two other mystic minimalist shelfmates during this period were John Tavener and Henryk Górecki, making a threesome whose stars arguably shone more brightly, in commercial terms at least, than any other living composers of the time (but for the other more secular minimalists Reich, Glass, Nyman and Adams). Tavener and Górecki experienced similar stylistic journeys too, reaching their final spare, austere vernacular from radically different, avant-garde starting points: the young Tavener, wacky, experimental, a hippy child of the 1960s who rubbed shoulders with The Beatles; and Górecki, a man whose early scores were characterized by monumental gesture, cacophony and clusters.

The tale of Pärt’s stylistic transformation, in its oversimplified form, is beguiling and glamorous: Estonia’s enfant terrible produces the country’s first 12-tone score in 1960, proceeds to write a number of shocking, dissonant pieces until 1968, then goes silent for eight years, and emerges with a confoundingly new musical voice which is exquisitely subtle, consonant, and resonates with the sound-world and technique of the medieval and Renaissance masters. For those relieved by this shift from the avant-garde to the quasi-ancient, from fragmented gesturing to soothing introspection, the most immediate analogy must be that of the caterpillar and the butterfly, the chrysalis being Pärt’s years of silence.

Of course, time and popular imagination have artificially manufactured this account of creative metamorphosis. Pärt did in fact write a major work, the Third Symphony, in 1971—during the fabled ‘silence’—and it is a crucial, transitional piece which hints strongly at the style to come, with its pervasive pseudo-medievalism and polyphonic grandeur. And whilst if you compare his early work to the post-1976 ‘tintinnabulist’ style the difference will seem as extreme as viewing a Gothic cathedral alongside an edifice of Le Corbusier, it is wrong to imagine that the composer underwent a complete switch of sensibility between the two creative periods. Pärt’s serious, solemn nature is very much present in both, and one can discern just as much sense of dramatic control, of ebb and flow, in the modernist collages of the 1960s as in the best scores of later years. The musical means may be worlds apart, but the temperament and spirit of the man remain the same.

Another part of the dressed-up version of Pärt’s lifepath is that he was only ‘discovered’ relatively late on, rescued from an Eastern-bloc obscurity by an enlightened, receptive West. It is a romantic, patronizing notion which fits well with the chrysalis analogy. But only in the broad, mega-commercial sense is it true.

Pärt studied at the Tallinn Conservatorium from the late-fifties until 1963, and even before graduating won first prize in the Pan-Soviet Union Young Composers’ Competition with a children’s cantata and oratorio. The extraordinarily compact essay in serial, palindromic layering Perpetuum mobile, written in 1964 and dedicated to Luigi Nono, was presented successfully at numerous new-music festivals around Europe at that time. And the Cello Concerto, subtitled ‘Pro et Contra’, was commissioned by Rostropovich no less—surely firm proof that the young, modernist Pärt was no obscure recluse from the grim backwaters of eastern Europe.

The austerity and disarming simplicity of Pärt’s tintinnabulist works have led to a common criticism that this music is naive and washed-out: ‘It’s all the same, just a sea of A minor triads and precious silence’, one hears; or, as The New Yorker recently wrote, ‘Aural pillows that you can sink into’ (ie, not far removed from that amoebic sludge in sound’s evolution which is Elevator Music). Through careful selection of Pärt’s choral output, avoiding the more static, etiolated works, and through robust performances of wide emotional range, it is hoped that such unflattering preconceptions will be adjusted to reveal a truly impassioned, dramatic aspect to the composer’s musical personality.

from notes by Meurig Bowen © 1998

'Pärt: Berliner Messe & Magnificat' (CDH55408)
Pärt: Berliner Messe & Magnificat
MP3 £4.99FLAC £4.99ALAC £4.99Pre-order CD by post £5.50 CDH55408  Helios (Hyperion's budget label) August 2014 Release  
'Pärt: Triodion & other choral works' (CDA30013)
Pärt: Triodion & other choral works
MP3 £7.99FLAC £7.99ALAC £7.99Buy by post £8.50 CDA30013  Hyperion 30th Anniversary series  
'Pärt: Triodion & other choral works' (CDA67375)
Pärt: Triodion & other choral works
'A Christmas Present from Polyphony' (NOEL2)
A Christmas Present from Polyphony
MP3 £4.50FLAC £4.50ALAC £4.50Buy by post £4.50 NOEL2  Super-budget price sampler — Last few CD copies remaining  
'Dreamland' (HYP41)
MP3 £4.50FLAC £4.50ALAC £4.50Buy by post £4.50 HYP41  Super-budget price sampler  
'Ikon, Vol. 1' (CDA66928)
Ikon, Vol. 1
On other labels
'Pärt, Reich & Davies: Cantus' (CKD432)
Pärt, Reich & Davies: Cantus
MP3 £8.00FLAC £9.00ALAC £9.00 CKD432  Download only  
Complete works available for download
… which was the son of … Polyphony, Stephen Layton (conductor)
Annum per Annum Andrew Lucas (organ)
Berliner Messe Polyphony, Stephen Layton (conductor), Andrew Lucas (organ)
Cantus in memoriam of Benjamin Britten Kato Kuniko (percussion)
De profundis Polyphony, Stephen Layton (conductor), Andrew Lucas (organ), Chris Guy (percussion)
Dopo la vittoria Polyphony, Stephen Layton (conductor)
Fratres Kato Kuniko (percussion)
Für Alina Kato Kuniko (percussion)
I am the true vine Polyphony, Stephen Layton (conductor)
Littlemore Tractus Polyphony, Christopher Bowers-Broadbent (organ), Stephen Layton (conductor)
Magnificat Holst Singers, Stephen Layton (conductor)
Magnificat Polyphony, Stephen Layton (conductor), Rachel Elliott (soprano)
My heart's in the highlands David James (countertenor), Christopher Bowers-Broadbent (organ)
Nunc dimittis Polyphony, Stephen Layton (conductor)
Salve regina Polyphony, Christopher Bowers-Broadbent (organ), Stephen Layton (conductor)
Sieben Magnificat-Antiphonen Polyphony, Stephen Layton (conductor)
Spiegel im Spiegel Kato Kuniko (percussion)
The Beatitudes Polyphony, Stephen Layton (conductor), Andrew Lucas (organ)
Triodion Polyphony, Stephen Layton (conductor)
Alphabetical listing of all musical works
… which was the son of … (Pärt)
Annum per Annum (Pärt)
Berliner Messe (Pärt)
Cantus in memoriam of Benjamin Britten (Pärt/Kuniko)
De profundis (Pärt)
Dopo la vittoria (Pärt)
Fratres (Pärt/Kuniko)
Für Alina (Pärt/Kuniko)
I am the true vine (Pärt)
Littlemore Tractus (Pärt)
Magnificat (Pärt)
My heart's in the highlands (Pärt)
Nunc dimittis (Pärt)
O Adonai  No 2 of Sieben Magnificat-Antiphonen (Pärt)
O Immanuel  No 7 of Sieben Magnificat-Antiphonen (Pärt)
O König aller Völker  No 6 of Sieben Magnificat-Antiphonen (Pärt)
O Morgenstern  No 5 of Sieben Magnificat-Antiphonen (Pärt)
O Schlüssel Davids  No 4 of Sieben Magnificat-Antiphonen (Pärt)
O Sproß aus Isais Wurzel  No 3 of Sieben Magnificat-Antiphonen (Pärt)
O Weisheit  No 1 of Sieben Magnificat-Antiphonen (Pärt)
Salve regina (Pärt)
Sieben Magnificat-Antiphonen (Pärt)
Spiegel im Spiegel (Pärt/Kuniko)
The Beatitudes (Pärt)
Triodion (Pärt)
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