25 years ago, in 1984, Arvo Pärt’s “Tabula rasa” launched ECM’s New Series. The recording indeed marked a new beginning and not only for Pärt’s work, providing impulses for contemporary composition at many levels. The power of Pärt’s music, moreover, underlined by the conviction of his religious feeling, struck a chord amongst listeners which continues to resonate. As fellow composer Steve Reich has observed, Pärt’s music of spiritual yearning seems to fulfill a human need.
“In Principio”, Pärt’s new album, his eleventh for ECM, is both a continuation and a recording which posits fresh directions in his music, offers fresh colours. Four pieces, “In principio”, “La Sindone”, “Cecilia, vergine romana” and “Für Lennart in memoriam” are heard in première recordings. The album also revisits and revises important pieces. We hear a transformed “Da Pacem Domine”, and a radically new version of “Mein Weg”.
Performers are the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra and the Tallin Chamber Orchestra, under the inspired direction of Tõnu Kaljuste, long a staunch ally and committed advocate for the composer’s work.
“In principio erat Verbum…” In the beginning was the word. The composition “In Principio” (2003) for mixed choir and orchestra begins with the famous line that opens the Gospel of St John, and sets its first fourteen verses. It is a work that seems chiseled out of sound itself, the hallmarks of Pärt’s powerful – and timeless – musical signature immediately apparent. The work is dedicated to Kaljuste (as was “Kanon Pokajanen”, a decade ago).
“La Sindone” (2005) for orchestra, addresses the enigma of the Holy Shroud said to bear the imprint of Christ’s face. Its history can be traced back with certainty as far as the 14th century, but beyond that history blurs into myth. Legend has it that from Jerusalem the cloth was conveyed to Aleppo, Constantinople, Cyprus, Paris, Lirey and Chambery and finally Turin, where it has been preserved since 1578. Pärt’s strongly evocative composition, imaginatively inspired both by the shroud’s journey and its essential mystery, was premiered in Turin in 2006 (when it was played alongside “Cecilia, vergine romana” and “Da Pacem Domine”).
“Cecilia, vergine romana” (2000, revised 2002) for mixed choir and orchestra, takes its text from the Roman Breviary, and tells the tale of the Roman maiden Cecilia (2nd century AD), who is said to have continued singing the praises of God even as she died a martyr’s death. She is revered as the patron saint of musicians.
“Da pacem Domine” (2004) was first heard on ECM in the version for five singers a cappella (the Hilliard Ensemble plus Sarah Leonard) on “Lamentate” (ECM New Series 1930). Here we hear the version for mixed choir and orchestra. The musical point of departure for the piece, commissioned by Jordi Savall, was the ninth-century Gregorian antiphon, an intercession in the liturgy and in polyphony which many composers over the centuries have been inspired to set to music. Pärt began writing the piece two days after the Madrid train bombings of 11th March 2004, and the piece is dedicated to the victims of this terrorist action.
“Mein Weg” was written as a composition for organ in 1989, and recorded as such by Christopher Bowers-Broadbent for ECM on the album “Trivium” the following year (ECM New Series 1431). In 1994 Pärt prepared a version for strings and percussion. The piece is given a compelling, sinuously undulating and hypnotically-insistent performance here by the Tallinn players.
The programme is completed by “Für Lennart in memoriam” a very still piece for the late Estonian president (and writer and film director) Lennart Georg Meri, a work premiered by the Talllinn Chamber Orchestra at Meri’s funeral in 2006.