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Arvo PÄRT (b.1935)
Orient Occident
Wallfahrtslied [Pilgrim’s Song] for men’s choir and strings (1984)
Orient Occident for strings (2000)
Como cierva sedienta for women’s choir and orchestra (1998)
Swedish Radio Choir
Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Tönu Kaljuste
Recorded: Berwaldhallen, Swedish Radio, Stockholm, 28 May - 1 June 2001 DDD
ECM NEW SERIES 472 080-2


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As one of the founding fathers of what has become known as ‘sacred’ or ‘mystic minimalism’, Arvo Pärt has a loyal following. Whether or not you respond to this type of music depends, I think, on whether you view it as soporific ‘wallpaper’ music, or as a deeply-felt, hypnotically intense experience. Manfred Eicher’s ECM label was largely responsible for bringing Pärt’s music into the public domain, and this latest release from them brings us right up to date with his compositional thoughts.

It is good to report that far from resting on his laurels and giving us more of the same, there are new sounds discernible within his familiar frameworks. Thus the opening work, Wallfahrtslied (a setting in German of Psalm 121 – ‘I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills’) shows a trend towards something altogether tougher, more sinewy, in the polyphonic textures. This may be due to the piece’s inspiration, the death of Pärt’s close friend, Estonian film and stage director Grigori Kromanov, in 1984. Pärt’s short note in the booklet movingly describes the ‘invisible rift that had opened up between us’, and how this piece was an attempt to ‘overcome this insurmountable gap’. The piece is an 8-minute threnody, with a characteristic, gently rocking string figuration over which the men’s voices chant in unison. These two basic contrasting components then begin to develop, the chanting growing louder, the strings becoming much more agitated. At around 3’30 a climactic moment is approached, the strings pleading in a higher register with an almost Mahlerian intensity. This becomes a cry of desperation, a need to understand and come to terms with loss, before subsiding into calm resignation.

The CD’s title work, Orient Occident, is actually the shortest piece on the disc, though no less intense. Again the basic material may sound familiar – it is in places reminiscent of his earlier well known works Fratres and Tabula Rasa. The piece is constructed like links in a chain, with tiny contrasting musical segments – orientally tinted monody and rich chords – converging and juxtaposing in a steady stream of sound. The monophonic line has the feel of a cantus firmus, but the inner eruptions of volume and density give the music a much tougher edge than we are used to with this composer, as if awkward issues are being played out before us.

By far the longest work on the disc is Como cierva sedienta, a translation of the familiar Psalms 42-43 ‘As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God’. Pärt tells us that he sees "My Soul" in David’s psalm as ‘the soul of us all, our path through life – a path filled with suffering and drama, consolation and ultimate despair’. These contrasts are reflected in music of revelatory intensity from the women’s voices (akin to one of Hildegard’s ‘Visions’), and moments of gloomy intensity from the orchestra. There are recognisable melodic patterns at work here, neatly providing the ear with the necessary structural unity. At one of the most moving points (4’07), a high solo soprano intones the phrase ‘I pour out my soul in me’ to the solitary accompaniment of a drum beat, extremely effective in its simplicity and curiously reminiscent of another moving choral work, Preisner’s Requiem for my Friend. The Orthodox chant that has so influenced Pärt is much in evidence, and we have further evidence of thorny spiritual questions being asked – the outburst at the words ‘Judge me, O God’ is almost violent by this composer’s standards. The work does end on a calm note, where peace and reconciliation appear to win out, though tiny, nagging questions prevent the full circle being closed too comfortably.

Some outstanding and thought-provoking works here, then, the quality of which outweigh the rather miserly playing time (especially at full price). The performances could hardly be better; Tönu Kaljuste is a long-time friend and interpreter of Pärt’s music (he was responsible for one of the composer’s best earlier releases on Virgin, Beatus vir). He coaxes playing of great warmth and intensity from his forces, and producer Manfred Eicher and his team serve them well with a recording of demonstration quality. Whether you’re interested in this composer’s particular style or not, this is well worth investigating.

Tony Haywood

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