Pärt: In Principio

March 31, 2009


Pärt: In Principio
Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir
Estonian National Symphony Orchestra
Tallinn Chamber Orchestra; Tõnu Kaljuste
(ECM New Series 2050; 70:36)

Arvo Pärt has had a special relationship with ECM Records from the beginning.  Twenty-five years ago it was ECM that first presented Pärt’s music to a sizable audience with the release of the now-classic album Tabula Rasa.  It was a marriage made in heaven, Pärt’s spare and contemplative music a perfect match for ECM’s sleek and austere aesthetic. In the intervening years the label has recorded most of Pärt’s major compositions, often in definitive versions. In Principio is the twelfth record to come from this fruitful relationship.

Some labels might have used the occasion of a major anniversary to bundle together some old recordings as a “Greatest Hits” album, but not ECM.  On the contrary, of the six pieces included on this disc, four are recorded here for the first time, and the other two are substantial revisions of older works.  All of the music was either written or revised in the last decade.

The centerpiece of the program is In Principio, a setting of the prologue of St. John’s Gospel for chorus and orchestra.  It’s an attractive piece that occupies a sonic space reminiscent of several other of Pärt’s recent compositions (both Litany and Lamentate come to mind).  La Sindone, for orchestra, is a quarter-hour long piece, written in honour of the Turin Shroud, that slowly unfolds a gentle, sinewy melody.  Cecilia, vergine romana is another work for chorus and orchestra, its text taken from the Roman Breviary’s account of the martyrdom of our beloved St.Cecilia.  It’s a gorgeous, evocative piece that I hope we will hear more frequently in the coming years.  Da Pacem Domine, written in 2004 to commemorate the victims of the Madrid train bombings, has been recorded a few times before, but appears here in a new version for chorus and orchestra. It is a near-static piece that seems to hang peacefully in the air, slowly settling over the listener like dew.  Mein Weg is a short piece that was originally written in the late 1980s for organ, but has been newly arranged for string orchestra and percussion.  The final piece on the record is Für Lennart in memoriam, an orchestral tribute to the late Estonian president Lennart Georg Meri.

None of these works break bold new ground for Pärt. He is one of the few modern composers blessed with a compositional voice that is both distinctive and accessible, and there can be little reason for him to tamper with a good thing.  The music is unfailingly beautiful, even if the level of inspiration is not as high as it once was. I consider Pärt main strength to be in composing for voices, and this record, which places choral works side-by-side with purely orchestral ones, confirms that judgement.  His harmonic language, when sung, sounds clear and pure, but, for some reason, when transferred to orchestral strings I find it a bit drab and one-dimensional.  But this is no reason to avoid this recording; it is still a splendid exhibition of Pärt’s enchanting art.

The performances and recording quality on this release are beyond reproach.  Kaljuste and the Estonians have been collaborators with Pärt for many years, and routinely premiere his pieces.  ECM’s engineers are as good as we have come to expect: the sound is clean and vibrant.


ECM has prepared a mini-site for this record, featuring music clips, videos, and background information.  It is well worth a look.

3 Responses to “Pärt: In Principio”

  1. I’m looking forward to hearing this. Have we ever discussed Part’s Kanon Pokajanen? That’s a wonderful vocal piece. I found it hard to get into but came to love it.

  2. cburrell Says:

    I’m run off my feet today and don’t have much time to respond to the interesting comments that are piling up. I’ll quickly pause to agree with you about Kanon Pokajanen, Mac. It’s a wonderful piece of music. I heard the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir sing it shortly after their recording was issued, and I count that concert among the greatest of my life.

    I’ve known a few other people who said it took them a while to warm up to the piece; personally, I loved it straight away.

  3. I thought it was, frankly, boring at first. It’s quite long and somewhat static. I had to start hearing the little things. Also I remember being a bit put off by his abrupt dynamic contrasts, which he sometimes uses in other works–seems gimmicky. But I did get over all that.

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