On September 11th
2005 Arvo Pärt will celebrate his
70th birthday. These compilation
sets are a worthy tribute to him. Since
they complement each other I have chosen
to review them together.
It is sensational that
a modern composer becomes so popular
and so best-selling. It is unique that
a composer still alive gets multiple
recordings of his works to the degree
that Pärt has experienced. Of course
it is the accessibility of his output
from his "tintinnabulation"
period, starting in 1976 with his seminal
piano piece Für Alina, which is
represented on both these compilations.
From the mid-1980s Pärt became
a cult-composer, a position he had to
share with Gorecki, when his Symphony
No 3 reached the bestseller-lists in
the 1990s, but while Gorecki’s nimbus
has faded, Pärt’s shines with undiminished
lustre. What happened with both these
composers was that some ivory-tower
inhabitants started to think: music
that becomes so popular must suffer
from serious weaknesses. It is too simple
and consequently it can’t be good. Luckily
these views didn’t meet with sympathy
from the general public – a reason,
no doubt, why these discs have been
regarded as financially safe to release.
At the same time both Naxos and BIS
have chosen to cover also the "difficult"
Pärt, the atonal Pärt of the
1960s. For someone familiar with only
the late Pärt, the movement from
his Symphony No 1 with its aggressive,
almost "Rite of Spring" like
forcefulness, will come as a shock.
I was lucky enough to visit the summer
festival Musik vid Siljan (Music around
Lake Siljan) in central Sweden some
fifteen years ago, when Pärt was
the featured Composer of the Year. A
great part of his output was presented,
even his early symphonic music, and
Pärt specialists like The Hilliard
Ensemble, organists Hans-Ola Ericsson
and Christopher Bowers-Broadbent and
of course Pärt himself were present.
Since then I have been an avid collector
of his music, both on disc and live.
So the present discs were fitting reminders
of the glories that are hidden on my
shelves and have suffered some neglect
the last few years,
The choice of music
is good in both cases but is of course
limited to what the companies have in
their vaults. There is some overlapping
of repertoire and in one case, the aforementioned
Für Alina, it is also the same
recording, since Naxos for once have
licensed material from other companies
to give a fuller picture of the composer.
The other pieces – Cantus in Memoriam
Benjamin Britten, Annum per annum and
Spiegel im Spiegel – invite interesting
comparisons. Moreover the well-known
Fratres, which today exists in a dozen
different versions, can be heard, besides
the violin and piano version also for
string quartet (both on the BIS disc)
and on the Naxos set for cello and piano
and for string orchestra and percussion.
Collage über B-A-C-H is played
in its original version for orchestra
on Naxos, while BIS offers it in a later
revision, Concerto piccolo über
B-A-C-H for trumpet, strings, harpsichord
and piano, with Håkan Hardenberger
a superb trumpet soloist.
The quality of the
playing and the singing is high throughout
and there is very little criticism concerning
the technical side. I have to make a
reservation to the balance between the
instruments in the Naxos version of
Spiegel im Spiegel, originally a Nimbus
recording, where the violin is so backwardly
recorded that you sometimes hardly notice
its existence. The BIS version is just
about right. Comparing the two master
organists, Hans-Ola Ericsson on the
magnificent "meaty" instrument
of Luleå Cathedral, and Kevin
Bowyer on an undefined and "slimmer"
organ (also a Nimbus recording) is fascinating.
What also is so good
with both these compilations is that
there are several complete works, not
just isolated movements, and when there
are such movements they wet the appetite
for the complete works.
Someone who is curious
about Pärt and wants a cross-section
of his music, well performed and documented
could well start here, preferably buying
both the Naxos and the BIS. If a choice
has to be made I think the Naxos is
the best buy: one gets 2½ hours of music
at budget price and a very well-written
book about Pärt and about his works
by Nick Kimberley. Naxos also throws
its net wider and so covers more aspects
of Pärt’s music. The BIS booklet
has a more succinct but also well-written
text by Per F Broman. Having listened
to these samples, the interested listener
can investigate what is in the market,
not only from these two companies. The
largest catalogue of Pärt recordings
is still, I think, to be found on ECM,
with many first recordings with Bowers-Broadbent,
the Hilliards, Gidon Kremer and others.
Not the least of these are several fine
choral records conducted by Tönu
Kaljuste, who is represented on the
BIS disc with the Swedish Radio Choir
but on ECM conducts the Estonian Philharmonic
The weakness with the
Naxos set is the order of the music.
Nick Kimberley presents Pärt’s
musical – and personal – development
chronologically with well visible cues
to the music on the discs. The downside
is that since the music is presented
in random order it involves a lot of
skipping back and forth, changing discs
every so often, if you want to follow
his survey. For just listening to the
discs as a couple of mixed concerts,
it doesn’t matter and probably the chosen
order works better as programme building
than as a strictly chronological one.
However this is supposed to be an educational
issue and pedagogical aspects also have
to be considered.
But this criticism
only marginally detracts from the overall
positive impression of these disc.
What counts is the
music of Pärt and it is worth delving