PÄRT: pro & contra

01. august 2004.

Paavo Järvi, conductor; Truls Mørk, cello – Virgin Classics – 56302-7

Hats off to producer Maido Maadik, who no doubt selected the compelling and wildly entertaining pieces on this disc. Culled largely from Arvo Pärt’s experimental period of the sixties, this collection features astounding forays into serialism and aleatory techniques. Who else would begin his Symphony #2 (1966) with the sounds of children’s squeak toys? Then the bad boy of the Estonian avant-garde, Pärt uses other “shocking” effects like clusters increasing in dynamics and chaos then dissolve, and calm sonorous moments assaulted with abrupt dissonance. This is not the composer most of us know, now a pious and placid figure whose work is more closely connected to the 16th century than the 20th. Pro and Contra (1966) is the most exciting piece on the disc. Its furious energy reminds me of the opening of Shostakovich’s 1959 Cello Concerto No. 1 (a piece that first-rate cellist Truls Mørk also plays). The third movement will both amuse and leave you breathless. Most uncanny is the inclusion of a socialist realist choral work from Pärt’s student days: Meie aed (Our Garden, 1959). An innocent-sounding girls choir sings of the joys of cultivating its school garden, a naïve metaphor for socialist society. Like Prokofiev’s terrified On Guard for Peace (1950) or Shostakovich’s four-square Song of the Forests (1949), it is completely tonal without a trace of irony. It provides a kick-in-the-pants contrast to the naughty works included with it. Järvi, who has recorded several Pärt discs for Virgin Classics, is stupendous.