ARVO PÄRT: ‘PRO ET CONTRA’
Truls Mork, cellist; Estonian National Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Paavo Jarvi. Virgin Classics 5 45630-2; CD
THE Estonian composer Arvo Pärt is best known today for his "mystical minimalism," which fuses the hallmarks of the Minimalist idiom (repetition, harmonic simplicity) with a deep sense of spiritual yearning.
His "Spiegel im Spiegel" ("Mirror in the Mirror," 1978), for example, charted paths to transcendence with the most basic musical materials: a piano outlining the notes of major triads, a violin, a viola or a cello moving slowly up and down the scale. A post- 9/11 film at the International Center for Photography used the work, cycling it behind images of New Yorkers in distress, as if to provide a balm for shattered nerves, a hushed veil of primal sound to tug one gently away from worldly sorrow.
But as this new recording of early works makes clear, Mr. Pärt’s stripped-down spiritualism and the "tintinnabuli" style that made him famous were both inventions of the late 1970’s. Before then, he was a radical composer living under the Soviet regime, testing the new freedoms of the post-Stalin era by experimenting with serial and chance music.
Here Paavo Jarvi and the Estonian National Symphony survey several important works from the late 1950’s and the 1960’s, revealing the depth and range of Mr. Pärt’s earlier career. Fans of the later music should be warned that there are few resemblances here.
The disc begins with "Pro et Contra" (1966), an experimental work in which tonal gestures are ambushed by dense 12-tone yawps, and a solo cello (played resolutely by Truls Mork) picks its way through the wreckage. The vista is equally dark in "Perpetuum Mobile" (1963), in which cells of sinister dissonance repeat and build through endless cycles, as if urged on by some mischievous evil twin of Philip Glass.
The Second Symphony (1966) features a chorus of squeak-toys sounding like a massing colony of chattering rats. As the toys recede, quietly clustered strings skitter hauntingly, like insects behind a wall. Rounding out the mix, "Meie Aed" ("Our Garden," 1959), a bright and vivid cantata for children, shows an even earlier pre-experimental phase of Mr. Pärt’s development.
Mr. Pärt’s masterly skills as an orchestrator are evident throughout, and the performances by Mr. Jarvi and the orchestra are entirely convincing. Ultimately, the disc provides valuable perspective on the monastic simplicity, the spiritual tenacity and the unabashedly tonal style Mr. Pärt would later adopt. It also suggests one reason that, between the two phases, he needed several years of relative silence.