About this Recording
8.572525 - PART, A.: Piano Music - Piano Sonatine / Partita / Lamentate (van Raat, Netherlands Radio Chamber Philharmonic, Falletta)

Arvo Pärt (b. 1935)
Piano Music


The stone which the builders rejected, the same is become the head of the corner.’ (Matthew 21, v42).

A strikingly suitable quotation from the Bible, when regarded from the perspective of Arvo Pärt’s career. With the seemingly simple harmonies, the overtly melodic approach and the general absence of obvious complexity in his scores, Pärt has caused a silent revolution in contemporary music. Although fellow-composers reacted with suspicion at first, Pärt’s highly characteristic style has quickly won champions both from his colleagues and his audiences, resulting in a huge following all over the world.

The very first work with which Arvo Pärt officially presented himself as a composer were the Zwei Sonatinen, Op. 1, for piano solo, written in 1958 and 1959 consecutively during his studies at the Tallinn Conservatory. Estonia at that time was still part of the Soviet Union, and the influence of Prokofiev and Shostakovich on the young Pärt is undeniable. The work, however, also foreshadows the use of twelve-tone methods which he would exploit less than two years later; the stark dissonances and the many chromatic elements attest to this. Pärt’s interest in serial music is even clearer in the Partita, Op. 2, from 1959; the opening of the Toccatina consists of rambling atonal lines. Although the later style of Pärt seems to contrast greatly with this early period, all the seeds of his later musical language are already firmly present: echoes of early music as heard in the neo-baroque Fughetta, a direct focus on expression in the Larghetto, a predilection for the ostinato form in the last movement and a general economy of material with an omnipresent focus on melody.

From 1960 onwards, Pärt reverted to serialism and he wrote some large-scale orchestral works in this style, such as Nekrolog (1960) and the Symphony No. 1 (1961). Although condemned by Soviet officials, these works became well-known amongst other composers. Throughout the decade, however, Pärt was gradually becoming more interested in medieval and Renaissance composers such as Josquin des Prez, Guillaume Machaut and Jacob Obrecht. Their influence became increasingly evident in his compositions. Symphony No. 3 (1971) [Naxos 8.554591] became one of his last compositions before a period of study, reflection and artistic silence. Its strikingly less dark tone, the return to tonality and the use of medieval polyphonic techniques foreshadowed his comeback in 1976 with the piano work Für Alina.

During his artistic retreat, Arvo Pärt realised that he needed a better balance between human perception and musical presentation. According to Pärt, the essence of truth is simple. This essence is translated in music by the connection and silence between just two notes: this connection can be compared to the relationship between two people. The most intimate messages cannot be communicated in words; they also cannot be stated and therefore occur in silence. In the radically tonal and silent Für Alina, written for a young girl moving abroad for study, the two plainchant-like melodic lines can be compared to those two people. At times they go apart, then they meet each other, thereby generating different emotional interactions, perspectives and colours. The individual notes are reminiscent of bell sounds, so typical of the rituals of the Russian Orthodox Church in which Pärt was involved. The composer called this ringing use of notes ‘tintinnabuli’ (bells), following each other up according to specific tonal principles. It would become a trademark of his style.

In the Variationen zur Gesundung von Arinuschka (Variations on the Recovery of Arinuschka), written in 1977, a similar concentration on the interaction between two lines can be found. The influences of early music are evident by their canonic use. The independent different speeds of both lines, together with very precise pedalling instructions, create many consonant and dissonant colours within a simple tonal context of both the major and minor keys of A. The note-by-note progressions via scale patterns, evident in Variations 3, 4 and 6, reappear as ostinatos in Pärt’s well-known orchestral work Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten [Naxos 8.553750], written in the same year.

However, with works such as Fratres (1977) [Naxos 8.553750], Passio (1982) [Naxos 8.555860], Stabat Mater (1985) and Magnificat (1989) [Naxos 8.557299] for different instrumental and vocal combinations, Pärt started to attract much attention worldwide, creating an alternative to Western European avant-garde styles. Lamentate for piano and orchestra was written in 2002 to a commission from Tate Modern in London. It was conceived as an homage to the British sculptor Anish Kapoor and his sculpture Marsyas, a work of huge dimensions, in which Kapoor ‘wanted to make body into sky’. The sculpture struck Pärt as a confrontation with mortality, and his composition became a lament for those who suffer from pain and hopelessness. Determining factors in the work are old Slavic text parameters: musical phrasing, logic and accentuation mostly derive from the number of syllables and punctuation of the original texts. Besides the use of tintinnabuli and several intimate moments, the work contains some strikingly dissonant, percussive passages and dramatic grand gestures, reminding one of his early style. There seems no concern about musical language in this work, either with the past or the future, but Pärt’s idiom has now reached an all-encompassing tonal language. The introspective moments could be interpreted as the Apollonian or dreamy, reasoning element paralleling the Greek myth of Marsyas; this music celebrates the eternal and the indestructible. The ferocious brass and percussion parts can be seen as the intoxicated Dionysian aspect of the myth, as a symbol of pain or death. The latter is an important factor in much of Pärt’s music, as the moment of death is the moment ‘after one really discovers the truth. At that time things can happen which have not come about during a whole lifetime.’

While Lamentate is preoccupied with death, his most recent work for piano, Für Anna Maria (2006), affirms life in an almost unusually celebratory manner. Written for the tenth birthday of the young Estonian girl mentioned in the title, the work moves considerably faster than Für Alina of exactly three decades earlier. Written unambiguously in the key of G major, it contains playful accents and rhythms. The prolonged harmony on the dominant, just before the end of the piece, suggests hope and life expectancy. The innocent, open and all-embracing but warm quality of the music not only reflects the soul of a young human being, but ultimately the personality of the composer behind this music.

Looking back at Arvo Pärt’s career as a composer so far, it seems that the intentions and effects of his music have been marked by several paradoxes. First of all, Pärt has always tried to be in the shadow of his music. Pictures of him are, compared to other artists, relatively rare. Nevertheless he has become one of the most popular and well-known composers of today. Second, Pärt has never wanted to solve the problem of the hiatus between composer and audience in modern Western music, nor has he intended to write for the sake of the future of Western music. His music, however, has resulted in a renewed appreciation by large audiences of contemporary composition. Lastly, Arvo Pärt has followed the quest for musical expression within the microcosm of his inner self, a journey of introspection rather than exposure. It has resulted in a silent but large revolution in the whole macrocosm of contemporary composed music.

Understanding the music of Arvo Pärt requires an open and receptive attitude. His language is, at times, deceptively simple and familiar, but 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.

Ralph van Raat

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