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In the mid-’70s, at the peak of the minimalist trend in classical music, Arvo Pärt wrote an elegant and uncomplicated piece of piano music called “Für Alina.” The composition is defined by a glacial tempo and a melody that seems to have been conceived with a music box in mind. It is far more stripped-down than either Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians or Philip Glass’ Einstein on the Beach, two landmark works of minimalism that also appeared in 1976. And yet “Für Alina,” which is one of Pärt’s earliest compositions, was not the beginning of a new career in minimalist extremism. Rather, as shown by In Principio, the Estonian’s 11th and latest album for the ECM label, it stands as a quiet introduction to a composer for whom quiescence is just one aspect of his sound.
Pärt’s first and most popular recording for ECM, 1984’s Tabula Rasa, shows the limits of his interest in the one trait that connects “Für Alina” to the compositions of Reich and Glass: repetition. At times, the title work, performed by a violinist, pianist, and chamber orchestra, seems to unfold in an almost improvisational fashion, as if divorced from all pattern and rhythm. If Tabula Rasa is minimalism, a tag that follows Pärt to this day, it is only because it lacks heft and density. But the same cannot be said of Pärt’s popular and often stunning vocal works, which came to dominate his ECM discography in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Even an a cappella recording such as 1997’s Kanon Pokajanen is, at times, so sonically complete that an instrument might just get in the way.
So what is this music that has a reputation for quietude yet, in reality, is quite dynamic? Perhaps the best way to contextualize Pärt’s output—especially after Tabula Rasa—is to consider its religious content. Like the Gospel of John, from which the title composition takes its Latin text, In Principio ranges from the placid to the tempestuous. Actually, it begins with the former, which may come as a surprise to anyone who is only familiar with Pärt’s most popular works and still associates him with what Alex Ross, author of the survey of modern classical music The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, calls “spiritual minimalism.” It is definitely spiritual, but there’s nothing minimal about it. Part I of the opening piece, “In Principio,” is made up of a series of striking, bell-like tones, performed by choir and strings, to which brass and percussion respond with fanfare-like counterpoint.
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The 25-minute “In Principio” is one of the newer pieces on the album, which includes compositions dating back as far as 1989. Taken with 2005’s similarly brassy Lamentate, one gets a sense that the septuagenarian is becoming more brazen, and maybe a little cinematic, as he makes his way through the new millennium. The shock of hearing this new music is similar to the one you get when opening the liner notes to 1993’s Te Deum, which features a picture of the bearded Pärt perched on top of a guitar amplifier. It seems impossible that the monkish-looking composer could be a part of this or any other recent century. The only way he could look more out of place would be to stand in a DJ booth, illuminated by the glow of turntable and laptop lights.
There’s no doubt that Pärt’s faith contributes to this impression, but nothing makes him a man out of time so much as his interest in, to quote Ross, “medieval and Renaissance polyphony.” His studies in this area became explicit in the late ’80s, when ECM began releasing his choral-based works, one of which, Te Deum, has sold several hundred thousand copies. How could this music be so popular? It certainly doesn’t pander to the marketplace. Perhaps, as shown by the In Principio recording of “Da pacem Domine,” the tremendous beauty that accumulates when Pärt stacks voice on top of voice speaks to something lacking in present-day music. The piece is rather somber; it’s dedicated to the victims of the 2004 train bombings in Madrid. But the performance itself carves out a meditative space that serves as hopeful contrast to the noise and chaos of modern life.
“Da pacem Domine” has been recorded on several occasions but seems to get more full-bodied with each new release. On Lamentate it’s sung without accompaniment by the Hilliard Ensemble; on 2006’s Da Pacem, the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir performs it with the organist Christopher Bowers-Broadbent; and on In Principio, the choir tackles it again with the help of the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra. No one performance could be said to be definitive, but, for sheer meaning, the In Principio recording seems to best honor the tragedy that inspired the composition. What better way to show defiance in the face of terrorism than to put so many to work in the service of something so harmonious?
Unsurprisingly, the only composition that sounds anything like minimalism is also the oldest. “Mein Weg,” written for organ in 1989 and revised for 14 strings and percussion in 1994, is one of the few examples of Pärt’s work that evokes the pulse-like rhythms generated by Reich and Glass. Its inclusion here is somewhat odd. The music still has Pärt’s barefoot-in-a-monastery vibe but rhythmically it lacks the sophistication of, say, the following and final track, “Für Lennart in memoriam,” another piece played by the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra. The 2006 composition sounds as if it’s perpetually shedding layers and yet never loses any substance. This is one of Pärt’s signature talents: He can give the impression that composition is being stripped to its essence even as it’s being performed.
What’s impressive about “In Principio,” in particular, is that it’s the only Pärt composition that manages a complete survey—from the majestic opening to the untethered melodic swells of the middle section, “Erat lux Vera”—of the man’s entire musical universe. This is Pärt 101. The composition and the album that shares its name might not appeal to those who look to Pärt for a consistent mood of meditative calm, but it is, without a doubt, the best example of his musical styles in the 21st century and the only album on which he gets it all in.