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Arvo Pärt - In Principio

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Artist: Arvo Pärt

Album: In Principio

Label: ECM

Review date: Feb. 27, 2009

The stark yet luminous tintinnabuli style with which Arvo Pärtmade his reputation in the 1970s and ’80s has over the years given way to a more encompassing approach to composition – one that, while drawing from seemingly ancient aesthetic and spiritual values, also utilizes techniques and tonalities that were new in the 20th century. Yet, as interesting as it might be to follow these variegated strands and analyze them, it is perhaps more satisfying to let Pärt’s music – its structure, its profound emotional and spiritual effect – unfold with its own sound and sense. This latest collection on Pärt’s home label ECM offers a generous selection of new works and revisions of relatively recent compositions, lovingly performed by the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra and Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir conducted by Tonu Kaljuste.

“In Principio” is a weighty, yet spacious orchestral and choral setting of verses from the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the word…” Shimmering high strings are juxtaposed with the centered and monolithic weight of low strings, brass and reeds. There is a tint of Mozart in the transparency of the orchestration, an even stronger shadow of Beethoven in the almost-brutal pull between rising consonance and earthy dissonance. The final section does no less than reveal Pärt’s mastery of form and structure: The horizontal beat and pulse unfolding in time find miraculous symmetry with the vertical unfurling of the spacious triadic harmony.

“La Sindone” is a sonic rendering of the Shroud of Turin. Appropriately – and bravely – it follows metaphors of fabric and thread, with broken and flowing weavings of melodic line. Again, there is that shimmer in the high strings, a portentous rumble in the lower register: cellos, basses, percussion. These weaving and twining voices eventually create a babbling beauty, each note a tonal center despite the increasing density of sound and line. Then comes a falling away to near silence, before a rising motif ascends through triadic repose into stepwise chromatic exultation. All of this is sublimated at last in a resonant unison.

Among the other standouts on the disc is a choral and orchestral setting of the Gregorian antiphon “Da Pacem Domine.” Here, Pärt’s choral writing is lovely and gripping all at once; the massed power of the lower voices in Pärticular is stunning. This prayer for peace is sublime and uplifting, but it rises from a palpable undercurrent of fear and trembling.

That might be a clue leading to the essence of Pärt’s utter mastery. Yes, his imagination and technical command have allowed him to fabricate a body of work that seems to stand out of time and musical history. But ultimately, and more importantly, it’s the mysterious ways in which his sounds and structures touch on resonant words and universal, yet indescribable experiences and meanings that make Arvo Pärt’s music so majestic, so crucial.

By Kevin Macneil Brown

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