Arvo Pärt: In Principio

Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, Estonian National Symphony Orchestra, Tallinn Chamber Orchestra, Tõnu Kaljuste

"His music makes the basic human need for a link between aesthetics, ethics and spirituality clear and perceivable – a need so often subordinated to politics and economics in our society." Thus the words with which Arvo Pärt was awarded the International Bridge Prize of the twin cities Görlitz and Zgorzelec in 2007. His new CD, ‘In Principio’, demonstrates the extent to which his more recent music manifests this very link. Twenty-five years ago ECM launched its New Series with Pärt’s Tabula Rasa. Now its twelfth Pärt album, again produced by Manfred Eicher, presents six compositions of various lengths spanning a period of almost ten years. Four of the pieces appear here for the first time on disc. The meticulous performances were recorded by Estonian ensembles under the baton of Tōnu Kaljuste, a conductor well-versed in Pärt’s music for many years, and accompanied by the composer every step of the way.

The range is wide: Pärt creates masterly syntheses of the expressive resources he has pursued ever since his personal style emerged in the mid-1970s. The intimate and the monumental co-exist; streams of chords flow towards dramatic eruptions. The inflection of his pieces is always based on their underlying emotive significance. In Principio is a five-movement setting of the opening verses of the Gospel of John: "In the beginning was the Word". The elegiac orchestral piece "La Sindone" conjures up the image of Christ on the Shroud of Turin. "Cecilia, vergine romana", written to celebrate the sacred year 2000 in Rome, is devoted to the martyrdom of the patron saint of music. A serene plea for peace, memories of a deceased friend and contemplation of the ‘peaks and troughs’ of life: these are the emotional way-stations of the three relatively short pieces here, encapsulating the magic of Pärt’s music.

Featured Artists Recorded

May 2007 & June 2008

Original Release Date


  • In principio
    (Arvo Pärt, Traditional)
  • 1I. In principio erat Verbum (Jo. 1, 1-5)03:09
  • 2II. Fuit homo missus a Deo (Jo. 1, 6-8)01:43
  • 3III. Erat lux vera (Jo. 1, 9-11)07:15
  • 4IV. Quotquot autem acceperunt sum (Jo. 1, 12-13)03:37
  • 5V. Et Verbum caro factum est (Jo. 1, 14)03:50
  • 6La Sindone (for orchestra)
    (Arvo Pärt)
  • 7Cecilia, vergine romana (for mixed choir and orchestra)
    (Arvo Pärt, Traditional)
  • 8Da pacem Domine (for mixed choir and orchestra)
    (Arvo Pärt, Traditional)
  • 9Mein Weg (for 14 strings and percussion)
    (Arvo Pärt)
  • 10Für Lennart in memoriam (for string orchestra)
    (Arvo Pärt)
Stereophile, Recording of the month
Gramophone recommends
Classica, Choc du mois
If tranquillity is one pole of Pärt’s extraordinary vision, then the other and equally affecting pole is a flood of sound, much of it increasing in volume as a work progresses. …
Throughout In Principio, the singing of the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir has an extraordinary unity and expressiveness, while the playing under the baton of conductor Tõnu Kaljuste of both orchestras is forceful and precise. …
So much stronger and more distinctive than the compositions of such like-minded musical contemporaries as John Taverner and Henryk Górecki, Arvo Pärt’s cosmos of sound and passion is an expanse of deep commitment and easy accessibility that, as the examples on In Principio continue to prove, is utterly unique in this terrestrial kingdom.
Robert Baird, Stereophile
Superbly performed and recorded, this CD is self-recommending to anyone interested in Pärt’s recent work and his tentative ways forward from doctrinaire schematicism.
David Fanning, Gramophone
This is a superbly constructed recital of some of the most recent music of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. Pärt continues to lead the league in music that is both profound and honestly religious in sentiment; there is never a moment in Pärt where one detects indiscreet affectation or phony pietism; his music is redolent with sincerity and communicative ability. … This is a terrific album that is sure to please Pärt fans and will delight anyone just coming to this unique composer’s music.
Steven Ritter, Audiophile Audition
Of all the works on this program, Da pacem Domine is probably closest to the stripped-down yet rich sound we associate with the composer. But the recent music in premiere recordings has grown freer, less process-driven, and richer in its orchestration. … What is gained is a fully integrated roundness of sound. I found myself feeling a similarity to something past, and after a while it struck me: Brahms. This is not as far-fetched as one might thing. Pärt has a similar reverence for tradition, a deep love of counterpoint, a disciplined humanism. … Overall this is a very satisfying release, another posting from the ongoing creative and spiritual journey of a major composer.
Robert Carl, Fanfare
Simplicité et spiritualité sont depuis toujours les maîtres mots de la musique d’Arvo Pärt. Cette nouvelle parution le prouve avec toujours plus d’éloquence. … Cette musique … se nourrit en effet d’une écriture harmonique très personnelle; tentée par le primitivisme, elle reste toujours contemporaine; immédiatement accessible, elle grandit au fil des écoutes. C’est sans doute qu’elle parvient à établir un rapport intense avec l’auditeur: Pärt écrit une musique pour l’oreille et pour le cœur.
Bertrand Dermoncourt, Classica
In Principio vereint eine Selektion jüngerer Stücke, die allesamt nach längerer Konzentration auf die Reduktion des klanglich reinsten Tons in solistischer Besetzung hier für relativ großes Orchester mit oder ohne gemischten Chor geschrieben wurden. Trotzdem ist der Grundduktus der gleiche geblieben. Gerade „In Principio (neben dem fantastischen Orchestermonument „La Sidone“) das Highlight der CD) … ist neben seiner kraftvollen statischen Tonsprache inklusive wuchtiger Chorsequenzen erneut ein Beispiel verinnerlichter Luzidität, die auf der Melodik gregorianischer Gesänge, der Polyphonie der Renaissance und des Kanons basiert. Und überhaupt: Bei aller geistlichen Weltanschauung … strahlt die Musik der gesamten CD eine immerwährende seelenvolle Verlockung aus, die ihn stets in die Nähe Johann Sebastian Bachs rückt.
Joachim Ody, Spex
Jedes seiner Stücke ist eine musikalische Feste des Glaubens. Und den Titel seines Werks „In Principio“ … möchte man so nicht nur mit „Im Anfang“, sondern auch mit „Im Grunde“ übersetzen. Pärts Musik ist prinzipiell, sie will überzeugen, will Bollwerk sein. Deshalb vermag sie so zu beeindrucken. Das wird auch auf der neusten CD deutlich, die weitere große Stücke… für Orchester enthält. Berührend in seiner Einfachheit ist das Friedensgebet „Da nobis pacem“… Der Estnische Kammerchor unter Tonu Kaljuste sind die idealen Interpreten dafür.
Thomas Meyer, Tages-Anzeiger

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.