A few years ago, a documentary was shown on the television
called 'Who is Arvo Pärt?'. Most of the coverage was fairly
conventional talking heads and rehearsal footage, but it was
interspersed with a man going around the streets of Tallinn,
stopping passers-by to ask them 'Who is Arvo Pärt?'. And guess
what, none of them had a clue. I wondered at the time what the
point was of this recurring device. They weren't exactly making
their subject seem any more significant by showing how little
he was known in his own country.
But perhaps things have changed there in the intervening years.
This disc suggests as much: an all- Pärt programme from an Estonian
conductor, choir and orchestra, and recorded by the Estonian
Broadcasting Corporation. Whatever the neglect in his home country,
he has hardly been overlooked in the West, and this disc is
only the latest in what is now a long discography, destined
to be considerably longer by the time his 75th birthday
celebrations are over next week (September 2010).
Both choir and orchestra are young; according to the liner most
players and singers were recruited from the class of 1999 at
the Estonian Academy of Music. Given their youth, their professionalism
is impressive. If they don't quite reach the standards of other
Pärt recordings, that is only because labels like Chandos and
ECM have truly phenomenal Scandinavian and Russian ensembles
to draw on. But in general, this is an ideal Arvo Pärt primer.
The recording location isn't given in the liner, but judging
from the session photos, it seems to be one of those plain Protestant
churches you find in the Baltic countries. It has a warm, but
not blurring acoustic, which is ideal. The acoustical environment
is especially valuable in the passages (admittedly brief) when
the orchestra plays without the choir. Pärt's music, since the
1970s at least, is never more than a step removed from liturgical
singing, so the orchestra heard in a church acoustic is an ideal
With the exception of the final Te Deum, each of the works is
based on a single musical idea or texture. There is surprising
variety between them. They are all unmistakably Arvo Pärt, of
course, but there are many moods here. Summa, given here in
the choral rather than the string version, is flowing yet serene,
Ein Wallfahrtslied is questing and exploratory, albeit in an
introverted way, and the Nunc dimittis is – believe it or not
– outright dramatic.
The closing Te Deum is by far the most substantial work. To
be honest, you have to be in quite a spiritual frame of mind
to sit through 30 minutes of this, although the sectional structure
helps a bit. The competition is pretty strong on this work,
with at least six recordings, including contributions from top
Pärt interpreters Paul Hillier and Tõnu Kaljuste. The great
advantage of this recording is the freshness of the young voices
in the choir, or choirs rather – they are divided into three
groups. Perhaps this takes us a little further from the Orthodox
liturgy than the composer had in mind, but the sheer elegance
of the choral tone more than makes up for that.
So, happy birthday to Arvo Pärt for Monday. This is as good
a present as he could want for it. I doubt that any of the performers
here are even half his age, so it must be gratifying for him
to see his work being carried on by the younger generations.
Gratifying too that Estonian performers are finally getting
round to recording his music. But will it make him a household
name among the residents of Tallinn? I'm not holding my breath.