by Patrick Randall | Classical Music Review
Few could have predicted several decades ago that contemporary classical music could make room for sacred minimalist music. Nevertheless, the modest Estonian composer Arvo Pärt has gained the respect of critics and laymen alike for his powerfully simple art. In the words of composer Steve Reich, “He’s completely out of step with the zeitgeist and yet he’s enormously popular, which is so inspiring. His music fulfills a deep human need that has nothing to do with fashion.”
Pärt did not always write in the style for which he is now known; neo-classicalism and serialism characterize his early compositions, which eventually gave way to sacred influences from his native Estonia and the Russian Orthodox Church. Indeed, much of Pärt’s vocal music, and this album in particular, strongly resembles traditional Church Slavonic hymns.
Da Pacem, comprised entirely of vocal selections, is more homogeneous than many of Pärt’s previous albums. While at first many of the pieces sound like Gregorian chant, however, the complex coloring and dynamic variation obscure the constant tempo and separate Pärt from the sacred music that is his inspiration. He calls his musical style in general tintinnabuli, from the Latin for “ringing of little bells.” This refers to the bell-tone effect of the three notes of a triad. While any voice or instrument can achieve the effect, Pärt often chooses the organ to achieve it.
Some of Pärt’s success can undoubtedly be attributed to the artists he has collaborated with, such as Paul Hillier who is a founding member of the Hilliard Ensemble. In this recording, Hillier directs the talented Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, accompanied by another frequent Pärt collaborator, organist Christopher Bowers-Broadbent. More significant than a competent ensemble, however, is Pärt’s personal vision. The sadness and simplicity of his music is said to reflect the sorrow of Mary and the disciples at Christ’s crucifixion, a sorrow which pervades almost all of his music and is often contained in a single note. Pärt states: “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. I work with very few elements—with one voice, with two voices. I build with the most primitive materials—with the triad, with one specific tonality.”
The album opens with the mournful “Da Pacem”, a repetitive and dirge-like plea for God’s peace. It is followed by “Salve Regina,” an equally slow appeal to the mercy of the Holy Mother. The piece builds over 11 minutes, climaxing in huge chords alternating between dissonance and harmony, before it slips back to the quiet stillness that frames most of Pärt’s music. The first of the two “slawischen Psalmen,” which are closer to traditional church music, has more movement and a brisker tempo, while the second returns to plaintive softness. Next two soloists are featured, soprano Kaia Urb and tenor Kiit Togerman. Urb’s part in “Magnificat” is an excellent example of how Pärt masterfully employs the solo voice to draw out the beauty of one note. The remainder of the pieces blends with the overall mood of the album, with the exception of “Dopo la vittoria,” which is by far the most upbeat and unique. Pärt uses each section of the choir in percussive contrast and then unites them in strong chords, only to split them up again. The end of the piece returns again to buoyant contrast, resolving in the usual quiet chord.
For those unacquainted with Pärt’s music, an album like Arbos better displays the breadth of his art. As a sampling of his vocal work, however, Da Pacem is an excellent purchase. In the end, any attempt to identify the essential Pärt will probably be futile anyway, and the man’s own words are the best guide to appreciating his music: “If anybody wishes to understand me, they must listen to my music; if anybody wishes to know my ‘philosophy,’ then they can read any of the Church Fathers; if anybody wishes to know about my private life, there are things that I wish to keep closed.”
Mr. Randall is a junior and co-President of the Tufts Symphony Orchestra.