Estonian composer Arvo Pärt was still a student when his two Sonatinas op.1 and the Partita op.2 were published. It is unlikely that anyone familiar only with Pärt the modernist of the 1960s or the more tonal-mystical composer from the Eighties onwards would be able to name him as the creator of these early earthy, neo-classical-cum-impressionist, Shostakovich-meets-Ravel pieces. In his notes, Dutch pianist Ralph van Raat
writes that in these works "all the seeds of his later musical language are already firmly present: echoes of early music [...], a direct focus on expression [...], a predilection for the ostinato form [...] and a general economy of material with an omnipresent focus on melody." Yet listening to the martial atonality of much of the Partita, for example, many listeners will suspect that even Pärt's own mother would barely recognise him. More probably, these two works mark the advent of a composer who more or less metamorphosed into a different one a few years later, and another one after that.
A first glimpse of the Spiegel-im-Spiegel
Pärt is afforded by the Variations for the Recovery of Arinuschka
, and then the slightly earlier and darkly reflective Für Alina
. This latter was in fact the piece that heralded Pärt's so-called 'tintinnabular' style, through which he has achieved popular fortune and, perhaps, a certain amount of critical infamy as he emerged in the mid-Seventies from artistic hibernation following his uncompromisingly modernist works of the Sixties. According to Pärt, "Tintinnabulation is an area I sometimes wander into when I am searching for answers - in my life, my music, my work. In my dark hours, I have the certain feeling that everything outside this one thing has no meaning." After Spiegel im Spiegel
came the well-known Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten
and the variants of Fratres
. The beauty of these pieces lies undoubtedly in their simplicity, but any profundity likely depends heavily on the individual listener, for whom they may be deeply moving or rather boring. Others may blame Pärt for Ludovico Einaudi.
Für Anna Maria
, on the other hand, his latest piano piece, is a minute - in both senses - cameo in G major harking back two and a half centuries, like something young Wolfgang Amadeus wrote when he was six (which is not an insult to Pärt) - in fact it was composed for the birthday of a ten-year-old girl. This is the only premiere recording in van Raat's programme.
The major work is Lamentate
. Pärt's music would have to go some way to match the dimensions of Anish Kapoor's steel 'n' PVC alien spaceship 'Marsyas', which was displayed from 2002 to 2003 by London's Tate Modern museum, which commissioned Pärt's work for the occasion. Pärt viewed Kapoor's grandiloquent creation, as artistic types are wont to do, as a "confrontation with mortality", and Lamentate
(or LamenTate) thus doubles up as a "lament for those who suffer from pain and hopelessness" - which is presumably everyone, though Pärt is not specific. Listener-friendly, tonal, atmospheric, introspective: this magical work is a pan-temporal filmic-Lisztian hybrid of expansive, elegiac soundscapes that often approach stasis. What sets Pärt apart from other 'minimalists' is that he has the genius to create beauty, drama and variety out of very little apparent material - his music almost always evokes a sense of depth, even if the words Pärt uses to write about it are often vacantly New Age.
On the subject of which, Ralph van Raat's notes for Naxos have been criticised elsewhere for their hyperbolic nature. It may be toned down here but it still exhibits an occasional tendency towards spiritual fustian, not content with opening with a gratuitous quotation from the New Testament. Thus: "Arvo Pärt has followed the quest for musical expression within the microcosm of his inner self, a journey of introspection rather than exposure." Van Raat sums up Pärt's music with an almost surreal reverence that borders on gibberish: "Understanding the music of Arvo Pärt requires an open and receptive attitude. [The] gateway to the colours and messages behind the musical surface can only be encoded by an unprecedented focus and concentration. This focus can only originate from total silence, which will only be broken when it necessarily needs to be. His music then just conveys the essentials: the essentials of life and death."
As a pianist, fortunately, van Raat is generally immaculate. He has recorded several CDs for Naxos over the last three or four years, specialising in contemporary music. Discs include Gavin Bryars' Piano Concerto with the Netherlands Radio Chamber Philharmonic in their own Naxos debut, released earlier this year (review
), as well as the solo piano music of John Adams (8.559285), John Tavener (review
), Frederic Rzewski (review
), Hans Otte (review
) and Magnus Lindberg (review
). In each case van Raat's pianism was the recipient of enthusiastic thumbs-ups. Here he gives another fine performance characterised by expressive, dexterous and highly polished proportions.
Sound quality too is good. The CD booklet is the usual kind of thing from Naxos, reasonable detail in a tiny font. It is a pity that Naxos and van Raat could not see their way to recording Pärt's two other works for solo piano to date, his Diagramme
op.11 and, predating his op.1, the Four Easy Dances
: not only would they both have fitted on the disc, but each appears to have been recorded only once previously on CD.
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