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Arvo PÄRT (b.1935)
Es Sang vor Langen Jahren (1984) [6’38]
Stabat Mater (1985) [23’55]
Magnificat (1989) [6’33]
Nunc Dimittis (2001) [6’39]
My Heart’s in the Highlands (2000) [7’37]
Zwei Sonatinen for piano, Op.1 (1958/9) [12’54]
Spiegel im Spiegel (1978) [9’34]
Stephen De Pledge (piano)
Stephen Wallace (counter-tenor)
Choir of St. Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh
Chamber Domain/Matthew Owens (conductor and organ)
Recorded at Gateway Studios, Kington, Surrey, St. Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh and Champs Hill, Pulborough, all March 2002
BLACK BOX BBM1071 [73’41]


Though some of the longer items here have been recorded before, this very nicely packaged and recorded disc from Black Box gives a useful overview of Pärt’s choral, vocal and instrumental work. Anyone familiar with this composer’s musical make-up will know what to expect, with all its strengths and limitations, but here there are one or two surprises.

Chief among these has to be the two Piano Sonatinas, the composer’s official opus 1 and written when he was still in his twenties. I’ve always found it fascinating to hear composers’ student works, before any ‘style’ as we come to know it, takes hold. Here, you would be very hard pressed to name Pärt as the composer, such are the influences. The opening toccata-like allegro immediately brings Prokofiev to mind - with Shostakovich lurking somewhere too - and the harmonic palette of Hindemith also gets a strong look-in. They’re lively, very engaging pieces, and I supposed it’s hardly surprising to find the young composer influenced in such a way. We could all name others from the early-middle 20th Century. It puts the later music into proper perspective and, rather like Ligeti, whose early pieces are so Bartókian, when the true ‘voice’ emerges we understand more fully the journey the composer has undertaken.

The largest work here is the Stabat Mater, already excellently recorded by the Hilliards on ECM and here receiving another dedicated performance. It comes from 1985 and underlines the centrality of Pärt’s Christian faith and influence, from Renaissance and Medieval vocal style to his now-famous use of tintinnabulation and the symbolism of the number 3. Scored for soprano, countertenor and tenor with string trio, it is distinguished by extreme simplicity of utterance and is almost totally static in harmonic and melodic movement, such a contrast to the feverish ‘busy-ness’ of the piano works. This music, as with other composers who subscribe to this ‘holy minimalism’, invites one to share a kind of mystic experience, one where hypnotic repetition replaces any conventional musical argument. You could say you have to be in the right mood, but if you are, it’s mightily effective.

The same is true of possibly the most famous work on the disc, Spiegel im Spiegel (Mirror in the Mirror), plunged even more into the public domain by its constant use in the BBC’s recent and riveting holocaust documentary ‘Auschwitz’. This piece has also been recorded before, most notably by Tasmin Little and Martin Roscoe in their excellent CFP collection, but here the performers choose a slightly quicker tempo, a decision which makes the work even more powerful. This really is quintessential Pärt, a distillation of his life’s work, poignant, simple, expressive, incantatory and, in every sense timeless, hence, I would imagine, the reason it was picked to play as background to the horrors of man’s inhumanity to man.

The short pieces for counter-tenor are also revealing. Es Sang vor Langen Jahren (She sang so many years ago) features on the afore-mentioned ECM disc and together with the later Burns setting My Heart’s in the Highlands, display an ambience which, to quote Paul Riley’s excellent notes ‘reconcile wide-open grandeur with exquisitely plotted understatement’.

The performances are uniformly superb and the recordings, as mentioned, are also excellent, despite a variety of venues. Full marks and a big thank you to Black Box for providing texts and translations. This is a very appropriate birthday gift for the composer, who turns 70 later this year (2005).

Tony Haywood

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