Virgin Classics 2004
Virgin 563027

Truls Mørk (cello)
Ellerhein Girls’ Choir
Estonian National Symphony Orchestra

Arvo Pärt (1935)

Pro et contra, concerto for cello and orchestra

I Maestoso (5:29)
II Largo (0.31)
III Allegro (3:18)

Symphony No. 1, Op. 9 (Polyphonic)

I Kaanonid (12:17)
II Prelüüd ja fuuga (7:39)
Arvo Leibur (violin)

Kollage über B-A-C-H for strings, oboe, harpsichord and piano

I Toccata (2:49)
II Sarabande: Lento (3:06)
III Ricercare: Deciso (1:35)

Perpetuum mobile (6:56)

Meie aed (Our Garden), cantata for children’s choir and orchestra

I Allegro (2:34)
II Andantino cantabile (4:08)
III Allegro (1:44)
IV Moderato – Allegro (2:41)

Symphony No. 2

I (5:32)
II (3:18)
III (6:16)
Kalev Kuljus (oboe)


As I think Yogi Berra once said, “It’s déjà vu all over again.” Back in 1989, Neeme Järvi recorded a disc for the Swedish BIS label that included the first three symphonies of Arvo Pärt, plus his Cello Concerto Pro et contra, and his Perpetuum Mobile. Pärt recently had found an international audience, thanks in great part to a disc released by ECM New Series, which contained the works Fratres, Tabula Rasa, and Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten. These works were from the latter half of the 1970s, when the composer had adopted a new, stripped-down style he referred to as “tintinnabuli” – an allusion to the ringing of bells. Listeners turned on to this music wanted to know more about Pärt and where he had come from, so it was only natural for concert programmers and CD producers to bring his older music in front of the public. Neeme Järvi’s disc was a like a bucket of ice water in the face of those who been lulled by the ECM New Series release. This earlier music was confrontational and not at all soothing! However, it was of the same high quality found in the later works.

Now Neeme Järvi’s son Paavo has recorded an almost identical CD for Virgin Classics. The only difference is that the Third Symphony has been omitted (it is dedicated to Neeme Järvi, by the way), to be replaced by the Collage über B.A.C.H. (1964) and the children’s cantata Meie aed (“Our Garden”), written in 1959 when the composer was in his twenties. These works paint an even more self-contradictory self-portrait of Pärt, particularly the cantata: innocent children’s voices sing about the joys of laboring a community garden; the music is of almost nursery-rhyme simplicity. Let us not forget that Estonia was under Communist control in 1959! An artist of integrity who had something personal to say could hardly avoid contradicting himself under such sociopolitical conditions, and Pärt was no exception.

I am glad to hear the Second Symphony again. Here’s a work that really raises difficult questions about meaning, with its phalanx of squeak-toys (!) played by the orchestral musicians, its grinding rhythms and dissonances, and its saccharine quotation (near the end) of a piano piece called “Sweet Day Dreams” from Tchaikovsky’s Album for the Young. What’s it all about, Arvo? In about fifteen minutes, the composer takes us on one hell of a journey.

Dad’s performances (with the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra) are in your face, an impression intensified by BIS’s dynamic engineering. The son’s are a little softer in focus, perhaps less shocking; whether this approach falsifies Pärt’s intentions or not, I can’t say. Limited to one disc, perhaps I’d choose the earlier one, but it is good to have both of them for the unique works that each one contains.

(Raymond Tuttle.

Fans of Arvo Part’s gorgeous brand of minimalism–all soft, neo-medieval and tintinablular–will be enormously surprised by this program. The six pieces were composed before his re-examination and re-emergence in 1976, after a five-year period of silence. They are what one thinks of when one thinks of a certain variety of fascinating, if noisy and vaguely unpleasant “modern” music, the type of work one expects to hear led by Pierre Boulez. In other words, we are dealing here with atonality, experimentalism, and serialism. There are huge sonic clusters designed to upset, and statements about music are made by the music itself. The opening piece, Pro & Contra, essentially a concerto for cello, begins with a lovely D major chord which is immediately followed by a huge crash of dissonance; it is shocking and it ismeant to be. The Second Symphony features the sounds of kid’s squeaky toys. The brief piece from Part’s student period, “Meie aed,” is for girl’s choir and is entirely gentle and tonal–a grand piece of Soviet goodness. “Perpetuum Mobile” is a seven-minute crescendo which can knock you off your seat. The playing and singing, under Paavo Jarvi, are spectacular. In brief, this is not the Part you’ve come to know and love, but it’s fascinating to hear what he was like before he became who he was.

(Robert Levine.

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 No 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.

(Peter Bates. Audiophile Audition)

Although he writes music in a very different style today, Arvo Pärt was right not to repudiate these early works, difficult though some of them are, for he always has been a gifted composer who knows how to achieve the results he is looking for. The earliest work here, the charming Our Garden (Meie Aed) for children’s choir and orchestra, is an accessible bit of music described in the notes as an example of “socialist realism”, and I suppose in some sense it is. But what really should we expect of a work for children’s choir? Is Peter and the Wolf a piece of political propaganda simply because it does not take advantage of the latest avant-garde tendencies? It’s charming music, excellently performed, and I suspect for most people that will be sufficient.

The remainder of the music on this disc, though, does indeed belong to the avant-garde (meaning lots of dissonance and noise), most notably the cacophonous Second Symphony–but even here the music is well worth listening to if only for the light that it sheds on Pärt’s later style. Pro et Contra, for cello and orchestra, begins with a plush major chord and then oscillates wildly between consonance, dissonance, and apparent randomness, while the solo cello (the excellent Truls Mork) wanders about like a lost soul in search of a safe haven, sometimes reduced to a frustrated knocking on his instrument rather than playing actual notes.

In short, these are works that make crystal clear Pärt’s ongoing search for stability, for a consistent mode of address–a musical language that he could call his own. The fact that he has found that language does not render the search unworthy of attention. Although most of this music has been recorded previously, it would be difficult to imagine finer performances than these: beautifully played and recorded, and totally committed. Most of this isn’t easy music, but it is meaningful, interesting, and well crafted. If you admire Pärt’s current output you may find these documents of his artistic journey fascinating and well worth your time, even as you come to understand why he felt the need to radically change his mode of utterance to get beyond what he regarded (rightly, I should think) as a stylistic impasse.

(David Hurwitz. Classics Today)

The Estonian composer Arvo Pärt is best known today for his “mystical Minimalism,” which fuses the hallmarks of the Minimalist idiom (repetition, harmonic simplicity) with a deep sense of spiritual yearning.

His “Spiegel im Spiegel” (“Mirror in the Mirror,” 1978), for example, charted paths to transcendence with the most basic musical materials: a piano outlining the notes of major triads, a violin, a viola or a cello moving slowly up and down the scale. A post- 9/11 film at the International Center for Photography used the work, cycling it behind images of New Yorkers in distress, as if to provide a balm for shattered nerves, a hushed veil of primal sound to tug one gently away from worldly sorrow.

But as this new recording of early works makes clear, Mr. Pärt’s stripped-down spiritualism and the “tintinnabuli” style that made him famous were both inventions of the late 1970’s. Before then, he was a radical composer living under the Soviet regime, testing the new freedoms of the post-Stalin era by experimenting with serial and chance music.
Here Paavo Jarvi and the Estonian National Symphony survey several important works from the late 1950’s and the 1960’s, revealing the depth and range of Mr. Pärt’s earlier career. Fans of the later music should be warned that there are few resemblances here.

The disc begins with “Pro et Contra” (1966), an experimental work in which tonal gestures are ambushed by dense 12-tone yawps, and a solo cello (played resolutely by Truls Mork) picks its way through the wreckage. The vista is equally dark in “Perpetuum Mobile” (1963), in which cells of sinister dissonance repeat and build through endless cycles, as if urged on by some mischievous evil twin of Philip Glass.

The Second Symphony (1966) features a chorus of squeak-toys sounding like a massing colony of chattering rats. As the toys recede, quietly clustered strings skitter hauntingly, like insects behind a wall. Rounding out the mix, “Meie Aed” (“Our Garden,” 1959), a bright and vivid cantata for children, shows an even earlier pre-experimental phase of Mr. Pärt’s development.

Mr. Pärt’s masterly skills as an orchestrator are evident throughout, and the performances by Mr. Jarvi and the orchestra are entirely convincing. Ultimately, the disc provides valuable perspective on the monastic simplicity, the spiritual tenacity and the unabashedly tonal style Mr. Pärt would later adopt. It also suggests one reason that, between the two phases, he needed several years of relative silence.

(Jeremy Eichler. New York Times 22/08/2004)