After a period of studying plainsong, Gregorian chant, and Renaissance polyphony, in 1977, came Fratres, one of the first works in his radically new tintinnabuli style, from the Latin tintinnabulum meaning bells or a group of bells. The same year brought Tabula Rasa – or Clean Slate – a work reflecting his transition to this new style with its simple harmonies and often single unadorned notes, or triads.
To call Pärt’s music minimalistic is to ignore the very personal style that underlies this composition.
As part of Deutsche Grammophon’s www.deutschegrammophon.com/cat new 20C series of re-issues of 20th century music, that includes such composers as Schoenberg, Mahler, Weill, Bartok, Messiaen, Lutoslawski, Boulez, Ligeti and Torke, comes an enticing recording of three major works by Arvo Pärt.
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The two works mentioned above, Fratres and Tabula Rasa, are coupled with his Third Symphony from 1971. The performances from his fellow countryman, Neeme Järvi, with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, the violinists Gil Shaham and Adele Anthony, the percussionist Roger Carlsson and Erik Risberg (prepared piano) couldn’t be better.
From its fiery, dramatic, opening with the solo violin playing rapid arpeggios, Fratres, for violin, string orchestra and percussion, holds the attention immediately. The string orchestra enters, holding a bass drone in the background as the solo violin plays figures over a broader string melody. Pizzicato interruptions are reinforced by the distinctive use of claves. There are outbursts of fiery playing before the return of the pizzicato strings and claves, followed by the return of the melodic figurations over the orchestra. Dramatic and quieter reflective moments alternate. Yes, there is repetition but this is never simply minimalistic music, but by turns, music that is dramatic and still, at times clearly derived from plainchant. The solo violin reaches its highest register against quiet strings to close the work with the string orchestra and claves having the final quiet say.
Tabula Rasa is a double concerto for two violins, string orchestra and prepared piano that adds a gong like sound to the music. In two movements, the opening theme, marked Ludus. Con moto, is repeated several times with a quiet interlude between where the prepared piano adds its evocative sound. This develops to a section where the solo violins and prepared piano play a short tune. Each time the two violins reappear after a quiet section, the music develops and grows as does each interlude. The lively sections become richer and the prepared piano adds a more resonant touch. The music reaches a pitch with loud hammering sounds from the prepared piano and agitated strings. There is a long held note from the orchestra that ends the first movement.
The second movement of Tabula Rasa, marked Silentium. Senza moto, demonstrates Pärt’s development towards his own distinctive minimalism. There is a steady opening beat with strings and solo violins and occasional gong like sounds from the prepared piano giving the music a somewhat ecclesiastical feel. There is a slow, long drawn development but overall this is music that evokes stillness and lack of movement. The prepared piano makes only occasional but important additions, breaking the stillness and repetition with wonderfully atmospheric sounds. The writing for the two violins is strikingly effective. The music rises ever higher on the two violins before the prepared piano seems to bring them back on course and they descend, leaving the work to end on the low strings.
The slightly earlier Symphony No.3 is a wonderful work full of interest. The first movement, marked simply as crochet = 66 – crochet = 104 – attacca, opens with a solo clarinet but fills out with more woodwind before orchestra joins in the melancholy theme. Very soon bells sound a cautious note. There are more brass and woodwind passages before the music really takes off in an expansive theme. Brass and strings arrive before the strings power this stirring movement forward. The music returns to a quieter theme but still with a forward momentum. Pärt’s countryman, Eduard Tubin is very much recalled in this music. Brass interjections and percussion lead the music upwards before ending on the brass.
Marked minim = 54 – 56 Piu mosso – attacca, the second movement opens with a theme on low strings, in sombre mood, before it is taken up by woodwind and strings. A solitary bell sounds quietly but insistently then the string melody rises with an intense yearning feel. Part way through, the low strings and brass richly intone the theme, adding gravitas. A solo piccolo, vibraphone and celeste pick out a little tune before, after a pause, the strings quietly enter sounding melancholy again. A solo trumpet picks up the tune with other brass slowly joining in. After another pause, rich strings, timpani and bells enter in a short, dark theme before a lone timpanist makes a repeated insistent toll before speeding up to a series of rapid rolls over a quiet orchestral sound. This fades out as though the storm has passed.
The final movement, marked minim = 60 - alla breve, begins with strings quietly playing the earlier theme. There are a series of interruptions from a lively theme on woodwind and brass. Low strings ruminate before the brass follows by woodwind enter, gradually rising from the lower register pulling the strings up. The music becomes more dynamic and restless. The music rises to a climax, rich in orchestral sounds, with percussion. There are many thoughtful touches on percussion and woodwind as the music works its way forward again in a quiet string melody. The theme is given to various brass instruments before a trombone joins against low strings. Briefly a flute joins in before the music broadens and increases in volume to sound out the theme loudly before being cut off.
I cannot recommend this release too highly, containing as it does, three of Pärt’s most important and attractive works in beautifully recorded performances.