Recordings of November 1987: Pärt: Tabula Rasa and Arbos

Arvo Pärt: Tabula Rasa and Arbos

Tabula Rasa: Fratres (2 versions); Cantus in memory of Benjamin Britten; Tabula Rasa

Gidon Kremer, Tatjana Grindenko, violins; Keith Jarrett, piano; Alfred Schnittke, prepared piano; Staatsorchester Stuttgart, Dennis Russel Davies, conductor; Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra, Saulus Sondeckis, conductor; cellists of the Berlin PO

ECM New Series 1275 (CD). Heinz Wildhagen, Peter Laenger, Eberhard Sengpiel, Dieter Frobeen, engs.; Manfred Eicher, prod. AAD. TT: 55:04

Arbos: Arbos; An den Wassern zu Babel; Pari Intervallo; De Profundis; Es sang for langen Jahren; Summa; Stabat Mater

Gidon Kremer, violin; Christopher Bowers-Broadbent, organ; The Hilliard Ensemble; Brass of the Staatsorchester Stuttgart; others

ECM New Series 1325 (CD). Peter Laenger, Andreas Neubronner, engs.; Manfred Eicher, prod. DDD. TT: 59:21

It’s seldom that a startlingly new voice, transcending all reigning compositional schools, appears in contemporary conservatory music. Even less often is such a voice given the loving performances and careful production values here reviewed. Arvo Pärt’s is necessary music; there is not a false or extra note in the spare, painstaking writing, which has all the commitment of a lifetime devoted to profound prayer. Though much has been alleged of the so-called minimalists’ spirituality, Pärt’s work makes that of Reich, Riley, Glass, etc., seem minimalist only in inspiration and profundity, and only superficially “spiritual”—music that values neither sound nor silence, but instead creates a negative of the latter through surfeit of the former.

Arvo Pärt was born in Estonia in 1935, and continued to live in the Soviet Union until 1980, when he was allowed to emigrate to Israel (his wife is Jewish). He never got there, however, first living in Vienna, then settling in West Berlin. Life in the USSR had been problematic: official recognition of Pärt’s work ranged from ovations (1962 first prize in composition, Moscow, for the oratorio The Pace of the World, and Our Garden for children’s choir and orchestra) to outright bans (Credo for piano, choir, and orchestra) for overtly Christian texts. However, Pärt came not from an especially religious background, but adheres to his “subjective religiosity” (as Wolfgang Sandner’s liner notes put it) more out of basic predilection. This undoctrinaire but—as witnessed by his music—profoundly felt devotion to the ultimate mysteries informs Pärt’s musical language in ways similarly undogmatic.

The way has been difficult: he has gone through several distinct compositional stages, each separated by years of total silence. He first found work as a composer of film scores (more than 50), then entered a short period of serial composition, followed by a longer, more fruitful period of “collage” works. Then followed another long period of (self-imposed) silence, during which he studied French and Franco-Flemish choral music from the 14th to 16th centuries—the works of Machaut and Josquin, among others. It is these studies that most inform the works on Arbos and, to a somewhat lesser degree, Tabula Rasa, resulting in a music that is not so much tonal or atonal, as those terms are generally understood, but pre-tonal, in the modal styles of early, or pre-renaissance, music.

Arbos, the newer release, is a collection of seven pieces written variously for 11-piece brass and percussion ensemble, solo organ, and solo and ensemble voices with and without accompaniment (violin, viola, cello, organ, percussion). The title piece, a brief (2:25), thickly textured canon for brass and percussion and the least interesting of the lot, is inexplicably recorded twice on the CD, in the initial and penultimate positions. In attempting to “create the image of a tree or family tree,” Pärt writes, for trumpets and three weights of trombone, a layered canon in which the deeper the line, the slower the tempo. The description reads like an exercise, and Arbos sounds it.

From here on, however, the delights are endless. An den Wassern zu Babel (By the waters of Babylon), for the Hilliard Ensemble’s four voices and Bowers-Broadbent’s organ, is a mounting, arching vocalise that implies rather than states the words of the familiar lament. Lynne Dawson’s soprano rises and falls with purity and grace, blending seamlessly with David James’s countertenor, and the tenor and baritone of John Potter and Paul Hillier. Interestingly, someone (Pärt? the Hilliard? Eicher?) has decided that all the vocal works on this disc be sung with vibrato; strange in works that harken back so much to pre-vibrato composition and performing styles. I think I would have preferred the straight voice of Machaut or Josquin, but the vibrato does give just enough human warmth to an already austere presentation.

The organ solo, Pari Intervallo, similar to some of Keith Jarrett’s quieter organ improvisations on his Hymns/Spheres, holds virtually static airs above a shifting ground-bass: a study in the carefully chosen note. In De Profundis, David Bevan sings some of the lowest notes I’ve ever heard written for a bass, joined by the male members of the Hilliard Ensemble in this long, dark, majestic climb out of the depths of Psalm 130. The music is inevitable in its simplicity, rising from the tonic in whole and half-steps with oceanic momentum, then slowly revolving and evolving, cloudlike, in benign foreboding. Midway through, as if by accident, Pärt slips into a bona-fide major key for a few bars (the only major passage in either recording). That this should happen in this blackest of settings indicates the depth—if not the subject—of Pärt’s faith. As with the pieces that follow, the voices blend so smoothly and powerfully in the ambience of Ludwigsburg’s Karlshohe that it’s hard to believe only four are singing. This degree of purity and clarity in male voices is almost never heard except in ecclesiastical settings.

It is a testament to the timelessness and universality of Pärt’s art that the vocal line of Es sang vor langen Jahren, a setting of the Clemens Brentano poem, is so reminiscent of the final “Abschied” movement of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde without in any way departing from Pärt’s neo-medieval style. This, the only truly secular song included, is achingly sung by alto Susan Bickley, accompanied by Gidon Kremer on violin and Vladimir Mendelssohn on viola. There is great sophistication here, and poignancy, achieved through use of the simplest of tools with seeming artlessness. It is difficult to imagine a more fully realized performance of this lovely, lonely song. (Unfortunately, the notes, detailed in arcana of both music and recording, do not include translations—or even transcripts—of the texts.)

Summa, for unaccompanied S.CT.T.B., sets the Credo in a repeating quartet of lines that converge and diverge so freshly that I didn’t want it to end. The piece seems to recreate the birth of polyphony over a thousand years ago, tones and lines coming together and drifting apart, harmonies and contrasts happening as if by grace alone. This makes the technique sound newly invented: no small feat.

But the piece de resistance is yet to come: Stabat Mater, commissioned by the Alban Berg Foundation in 1985, is scored for three each of voices (S.CT.T.) and strings (violin, viola, cello), and was recorded, like Es sang vor langen Jahren, in St. John’s Church, London. The Stabat continues the almost unbearable melancholy of the Brentano setting, but at greater length (23:53) and with twice the forces. The flawless, breathing-as-one ensemble work is helped by the remarkable acoustic of St. John’s; the place sounds like a joy to sing in. I find this piece the most affecting of all Pärt’s work, embodying as it does the essences of sacrifice, commitment, dark stone, and prayer. Twice in its development, the strings burst in with desperate frenzies of baroque figurings, jarring in their volume, speed, and anachrony—the last flashes of worldly desire before apotheosis. Then, once more, the arches of vocal sound—one can hardly call them “melodies,” so reminiscent are they of plainchant—reestablish the meditative pace, and the strings close the work with pppp unisons separated by long silences.

Much of the music is a cappella, with soprano Lynne Dawson and counter tenor David James in fine voice. (The soprano part, in particular, is written for a range surprisingly wide for this sort of music.) The closing vocal unisons almost defy separation—this is ensemble singing raised to the level of sacrament. My only reservation is in the scoring: I would have preferred, I think, rebecs and viola da gamba to the modern strings presented here. All in all, however, this is very important music.

Tabula Rasa, which inaugurated ECM’s New Series three years ago, is an assemblage of four instrumental pieces composed along somewhat more conventional lines. Fratres, originally scored for “three voices above a pedal point for seven early or modern instruments and percussion,” is offered here in two more versions. The first, arranged for violin and piano and performed by Gidon Kremer and Keith Jarrett, is a quiet, thoughtful piece constructed in a single long arc of crescendo/decrescendo, punctuated periodically by pairs of pizzicato chords and piano bass notes. The mood is similar to one of Jarrett’s own, more introspective piano improvisations (as in Staircase), with violin obbligato paralleling the spare, careful chording.

The second version is played here by the 12 cellists of the Berlin Philharmonic, and is altogether more powerful. The punctuation is replaced by an open fifth pedal point (which runs through the entire 11:49 piece) and hollow handclaps on a cello’s back. The violin arpeggios that softly opened, then grew into raging, full-bowed double stops halfway through the first version, are eliminated entirely in this much more elemental edition. While the first sounded like chamber music, this is strongly reminiscent of an Eastern Orthodox hymn married to Barber’s Adagio for Strings. Haunting. The dynamic range must be heard to be believed.

The Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten, almost identical in structure to the later Arbos, is a canon for orchestra in which the voices move more slowly as their range descends. The piece ends in a long, static, minor chord that lasts for a full fifth of its five-minute length, and is similar in its dead-seriousness of intent to much of Carl Ruggles’s work (particularly Sun-Treader).

The first section of Tabula Rasa, for two violins, prepared piano, and strings, shares with the violin/piano Fratres a long line punctuated by percussion—in this case, a prepared piano sounding much like a steel drum. Pärt uses a great many more notes here than usual, and in an aggressive, Vivaldi-esque concerto grosso style. The recording is disconcertingly revealing: the phenomenon John Atkinson mentioned in a recent issue—of hearing great distinction between the sound of horsehair on gut and the sound of the actual musical tone—is quite audible. The entire 26:26 piece is a single ascent from and descent to the tonic, which it never quite reaches, ending a whole step above. (Fast-forwarding the piece on my CD player in less than a minute gave me a useful aural schematic.) The Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra plays beautifully under Saulus Sondeckis.

Re. the recording in general: “It is enough when a single note is beautifully played.” No other of Pärt’s statements so sums up his work as this. Nor could ECM’s founder and producer, Manfred Eicher, find a more succinct statement of his own recording ethos. Eicher has become notorious in jazz and audio circles for his chamber-music-like recording style of intimate miking in electronic approximations of very reverberant halls. For this recording of sacred music in actual sanctuaries, however, the reverb is built in. There is an astonishing “wetness” to the vocals throughout Arbos, resulting in seamlessly smooth textures. Also, the extreme dynamic range of the performances imparts a wonderful fragility to the sound, emphasizing all the more the specialness—not preciousness—of the event.

Tabula Rasa, recorded under quite a variety of circumstances, is not as consistent; quite audible tape hiss mars the many silences of the 12-celli version of Fratres, and the live recording (a 1977 Cologne radio broadcast) of the title piece is very live, with lots of page rustling, chair squeaking, coughs, door closings, footsteps up the aisles, and that inevitable hiss. This last piece is also the only harsh recording on either disc. Even so, the dynamic range of the 12-celli Fratres is overwhelming, AAD and all, and reminds me of my early, gain-riding digital days: turning up the volume for the soft passages, down for the loud.

Respects to Eicher for recording Pärt’s music, and for lavishing such detailed effort on the presentation of such important, deserving work. My conceptions of what can be expressed by Western music have been greatly expanded; composers and performers can do no more than that.—Richard Lehnert

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