Kenneth La Fave
The Arizona Republic
, January 2005
What can new music do in a contemporary world of moneymaking and moral judgments? Alternative rock and hip-hop serve as criticism of the status quo, though they often ride the very beast they ostensibly wish to take down. Pop songs, a sophisticated entertainment in the heyday of Cole Porter and the Gershwins, are now a lulling diversion.
And then there is new classical music, currently dominated by a confusing mix of Neo-Romantics, post-avant-gardists and pop-culture crossover composers. To what end?
To paraphrase Wordsworth, the world is too much with music. But even Wordsworth, had he lived into present times, might have been comforted by the otherworldly art of composer Arvo Pärt.
Pärt's is no music for getting and spending. You must sit with this music, or you won't get it. Let it inside you, or it will pass beyond you.
Pärt, 70 this year, is the Estonian-born composer whose change from serial-based music-making to the simple, bell-like employment of a handful of pitches he calls "tintinnabulation" helped shake the still-Modern musical world of the 1970s and '80s into Postmodern awareness. Here was music as a still point at the center of cultural conflagration.
A new recording of one of Pärt's most satisfying works, the Berlin Mass (Berliner Messe), is the centerpiece of our Arizona Republic-KBAQ Classical CD of the Week. Pärt is among the most-recorded of living composers and there have been previous CDs of this serene yet strangely unsettling work. We chose this one because it's new (a criterion in this column) and it's on Naxos - which means it's inexpensive and available.
Many readers have called or e-mailed in the last few weeks about the increasing difficulty of finding classical CDs in the bins. Naxos gets its product into the stores and, on top of that, you can generally walk away with a Naxos CD and change from a $10 bill. This one retails for $7.99.
Which is not to say that this is in any way a cut-rate performance. The performers are Canada's Elora Festival Singers and Orchestra, conducted by Noel Edison. Edison and his group know how to let this music breathe. Edison elicits from the singers and from the silken string orchestra in the Berlin Mass pinpoint pitch and glowing timbre. The rhythms float, rather than feeling meter-bound.
The Berlin Mass, composed in 1990-91 for the unification of the once-divided city, is the central work, but the disc generously gives us other Pärt as well: the widely performed Magnificat; the early, seminal De Profundis; the gentle swing of Cantate Domino Canticum Novum (Psalm XCV); Summa, which served as an early model for the Credo of the mass; and the mesmerizing spaciness of his first work in English, the Beatitudes, a piece with more silence than a play by Pinter.
Pärt is a traditional Catholic, yet the overall effect of his music is spiritual rather than religious. Some have dismissed Pärt as a classical cop-out to New Age music. The difference is that New Age music is all foreground, while Pärt employs background - musical subtext comprising shifting details. Listen to the Berlin Mass and you will hear chantlike repetition, but also a haunting progress toward purity.