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Arvo PÄRT (b. 1935)
Solfeggio [3:45]
Silouan’s Song [5:54]
Da pacem Domine [4:23]
Psalom [4:48]
Missa Brevis [8:05]
Summa [5:33]
O-Antiphonen [13:28]
Pari Intervallo [6:49]
Cello Octet Amsterdam
rec. 2017, MCO Studio 1, Hilversum, The Netherlands

The music of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt (born 1935) is well-suited to music rich in concentrated and precisely-conceived texture and colour. Although Pärt lamented in 2008 the fact that he had discovered the Cello Octet Amsterdam “ten years too late”, composer and players subsequently developed a close and fruitful relationship, which seems to have made up for lost time.

The current CD on the Octet’s own label contains - fittingly - eight works for the ensemble which range in length from three and a half minutes (aptly, the Missa Brevis [tr.s 5,6,7] to the collection, O-Antiphonen [tr.s 9-15] at over 13 minutes. There is, nevertheless, variety and change in what’s presented - even in the perhaps little short 54 minutes of the CD. In fact, it’s the result of three days which the composer spent with the Octet in The Netherlands in 2015. Although, appropriately, the works here were actually composed over eight years.

But this is no ‘Concept album’. In keeping with Pärt’s character, most of the music is slow and melancholy with a clearly-perceptible spiritual, even overtly religious, underpinning and/or centre. It specifically seeks to examine mystery, existence, ethics, the human and the divine - and the relationships between these. His compositional technique emphasises melody, which is often developed slowly on the one hand. And on the other precise structure. The chief characteristics of this structure are the stepwise tonal series which for Pärt represent sin and suffering… ‘M-voice’; and the bell-like triads associated with heaven and forgiveness ’T-voice’. Although Pärt usually establishes tensions between the two, he also often resolves them into a single facet. For long tracts of the music here The Octet is conceived of and heard as a single voice, or a voice which is actually relatively unadorned by harmonies. Certainly no one player leads.

Indeed, in works such as Psalom [tr.4], there is remarkably little or restrained harmony. For all the potential richness and potential for depth of timbre, single or dual lines often predominate. Some of these works have other recordings - for different instrumentation, of course… Psalom, Silouan’s Song, Summa and Pari Intervallo (originally for organ). So the centrepiece of the CD is probably O-Antiphonen which does focus on individual celli and soloists/groups of cellists. This work was inspired by what Pärt identified as the twin characteristics of the Cello Octet Amsterdam which most appeal to him: richness in overtones, and cantabile bravura playing. It’s based on the choral Seven Magnificat Antiphons. But this time the weight is carried entirely without words. Pärt’s purpose was to have the musical nature of celli in ensemble convey the religious and spiritual senses so central to his world for so long. Indeed, here pizzicato is used for the first time; there is a greater liveliness and more emphatic contrast through divisi playing. As throughout the CD, the playing is pleasing and full of the necessary sensitivity and devotion to Pärt’s vision.

The (studio) acoustic of the CD is drier and more contained than might have been expected given the aural feast promised by the combination of Pärt and so many expert solo strings. But it works. It throws our attention onto the substance of the music, not its effect. And certainly not virtuoso playing. The short booklet in Dutch, English and Estonian gives a brief outline of the background to the recording which centres around the relationship between composer and Octet; there are sketches of Pärt and the players with photos of both. If you admire the sound world of Arvo Pärt, love the cello and/or know that you would be enthralled or satisfied by the confluence of the two, this is the CD for you.

Mark Sealey

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