The Face of the Unknown

Peter Quantrill

The Gramophone, 10 December 2010

Despite an outpouring of musical offerings, including most recently his long-awaited Fourth Symphony, Estonian composer Arvo Pärt remains, in his 75th years, as much of an enigma as ever, finds Peter Quantrill.

There’s no need to dress up Arvo Pärt or the success of his music. He says simple things well. One compilation sits in the top 20 of the UK compilation charts – and has done so for over three years – among the likes of “The Only Classical Album You’ll Ever Need”, Volume 2. There will be many for whom the music on the former album (Fratres, Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten, Summa) can be taken as musical Valium; many others who find, in the words of one taxi driver to Esa-Pekka Salonen, that it lets them hear their own internal voice. There are still others of us who must approach it from the other side, and with some caution. Salonen himself was one of them. “I was a die-hard Boulezian in my late teens,” he remembers, “and I was quite vocal about how much I hated this kind of music. Any tonal chord was like selling your soul to commercial forces. I quoted Boulez saying that a composer who doesn’t feel the necessity of serial organisation is useless. Which when I think about it now is like the famous Zhdanov statement of 1947 (that condemned the music of Shostakovich). Modify a couple of words here and there, and it’s the same. Boy, have I not changed.”

You can hear that change in Salonen’s own music, from stunning rhythmic anarchy of Floof to the serene, assured progress of Wing on Wing. “In my case I needed to be over 40 years old before I “received” this stuff. When I started again to listen to Pärt I discovered there’s a unique voice. What interests me nowadays is the voice of the composer. Art cannot be about right or wrong, that’s something lawyers and politicians deal with. In this way I came quite late in life to Berlioz. I used to think he was an appalling amateur: the harmony was so clumsy, he had no voice-leading, he was a hack. And then I understood the unbelievable originality and integrity in the voice. The same thing with Pärt. There are so many imitators.” The first recording of Pärt’s Fourth Symphony, made by Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, has just been released on ECM, the house label for Pärt’s music. The story has often been told of ECM’s founder, Manfred Eicher, driving from Stuttgart to Zürich when German radio broadcast Tabula rasa. It took him a year and a half to find the piece and the composer, and then ECM New Series was born. To mark the 75th birthday of the composer this September, ECM has released a luxury version, complete with an essay by Paul Griffiths which identifies the way the album arrived as “a window opening into a realm almost wholly unknown (that of music in what was still the Soviet bloc), a hand across boundaries, a different way of listening”.

Eicher makes a pertinent comparison: “As with Samuel Beckett or Don DeLillo in their different ways, you develop a sense of the words between the lines.”  He describes his relationship with Pärt as “like the cameraman to a film-maker. Working with Pärt presents its own challenges, as it has done with Kurtág and Silvestrov, but I have developed a special understanding with him. He is able to improvise. I don’t mean that his music is literally improvised, but he’s able to take on thoughts, he is flexible enough to change what he does according to what happens around him, and from my background working with many kinds of musicians I admire this”.

The composer himself resists the implications of that compliment when I meet him in London, the day before Salonen and the Philharmonia give the UK premiere of the Fourth Symphony at the BBC proms. “When I look at the pieces I wrote as a student, pieces for films, I improvised them during rehearsals. They didn’t last. Now the creative process happens another way. Now what I do is another kind of communication.”

Salonen again: “The spiritual connotations tend to imply something vaguely boring. But when Pärt composes, every note is a result of hard labour. Nothing comes easily to him. The point in this music is that you don’t vomit out notes. You have to earn every one of them.” Compare this to the recollection of a fellow student at the Tallinn Academy of Music in the late 1950s, quoted in Paul Hillier’s excellent study of Pärt’s music (Oxford, 1997), who remembered Pärt’s youthful precocity thus: “He just seemed to shake his sleeve and the notes would fall out.”

The Russian pianist Maria Yudina played some of Pärt’s pieces while he was at the Academy; he was nurtured by his teacher Heino Eller. “I wasn’t a very energetic student,” remembered Pärt, “but Eller had great patience. And now I understand it’s talent of love: it speaks of true humanity. In the same way, how do you learn conducting? You look at your teatcher, you follow the plastic movement. Or singing? You listen to your teacher’s voice and imitate. And now, years later, I would like more to imitate my professors.”

“The greatness of these people and their richness of emotion and intellect, this is what must be imitated. Not how they move their finger, but through this finger, the transfer of ideas. The creative centre is in the heart not the head. And this is the secret which the great singer have: the legato between two notes – the movement of ideas. They’re not stepping from one place to another, they’re moving a little bit above the ground.”

Specifics are hard to come by when talking about Pärt, or with him. Everything is, it seems, connected: certainly more so now, in works like the Fourth Symphony, than in the massive, block-like contrasts of the Third, which Kristjan Järvi describes as “a cornerstone of Estonian musical culture”. Järvi’s new recording, for Sony, joins that of his father Neeme (for BIS) and older brother Paavo (Virgin). “In recording the new CD,” says Järvi, “we found that we couldn’t use the work from the first three-hour session. As Arvo said, “It’s OK, but it’s not there yet.” You have to shake the music up: let it jump and fall and then completely settle. Most importantly you have to keep it flowing. A lot of people think Arvo’s music is just still and holy, but the truth is more complex. “Don’t play it like an artefact,” he told me, “like you’re holding something precious.””

The escape – by train – that Pärt took from Tallinn to Vienna in 1980, after he had become persona non grata, was repeated by the Järvi family just a week later. “Like many other composers,” reflects Kristjan Järvi, “Arvo was trying to compose within a repressive Soviet regime. And a lot resorted to noise in this context. Then he arrived, and started to write really beautiful music which created a certain sense of spirituality, rather than the other way which had basically been exhausted. He found a way to get under the skin of the authorities, within the framework of what’s expected, and did so perhaps to a degree that even Arvo himself didn’t intend. We can look back now and see how revolutionary his new style was but at the time it was seen as antagonistic. He has created the source and the face of Estonian music, and yet he didn’t try to.”

But the composer himself resists the idea of nationhood being a decisive influence. “It’s not a theme for me. If it is there, it is.” So should we focus on the notes? “No. Don’t focus on the notes. It has to do with perception, human existence, the sense of life, whatever you like, God, but not the narrow national ghetto. This is the beginning of every conflict and confrontation.” Nekrolog may be the first serial piece of Estonian music, and the Third Symphony an “interchange”, but for Pärt as for Western listeners, Tabula rasa “changed everything”.

Salonen draws attention to the destructive saga of the Baltic states. “Think of Arvo’s history. He was born in a country that was independent, and then it was occupied by the Soviets, and no matter whose side you were on, you were on the wrong side. If you were in the partisan troops, fighting the Nazis, you were fighting for Stalin, or vice versa. When Arvo became better known as a composer, he was channelling some kind of resistance into his music, in a more or less subtle way. I recorded the Credo some years ago, and someone told me that in the first performance in Tallinn, the chorus had been shouting anti-Soviet slogans, mixed with “Credo in unum Jesum Christum”. I think his relationship with Russian culture is complicated because he largely gets inspiration and material from the Orthodox tradition, but at the same time he is Estonian.”

At a nexus of that relationship sits the Fourth Symphony. Behind it lies the Orthodox Canon to the Holy Guardian Angel, and in front, a dedication to Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a one-time oil-billionaire now imprisoned on fraud charges. Eicher thinks we should not read too much into this – and Pärt has never met Khodorkovsky – but as Salonen says, “the fact of the dedication may not be aesthetically significant, but you cannot forget it either. People have different views about Khodorkovsky. Some people think he’s just a corrupt businessman, and then there is Arvo, who obviously thinks he is a saint, suffering for mankind.”

The symphony’s central movement is continually clouded by a darkly harmonised shudder in the strings, marked affanoso – “with anxious expression”. Says Pärt, “Another spirit comes (after a gentle opening movement), it’s not äusserlich (superficial), it’s…better not.” He shows me in the score that, though on every page you can see and hear the self-coined “tintinnabuli” style (two voices: one arpeggiated, accompanying a stepwise melody) which has shaped the contemplative identity of his music ever since Für Alina, so this affannoso figure is present in the shadows – “like you cannot move or influence the trajectories of planets, it is there, you feel it”. But a “crazy”, quasi-Sibelian coda seems to blow away such certainty on a chill and piercing wind. “Yes. Think about it. This is the message for audiences. But nothing is lost. The truth is….it’s an ellipsis.”

The next ECM recording will be of Adam’s Lament for choir and orchestra, and the work’s theme promises to chime with the Fourth Symphony. Eicher thinks that “the development of Pärt’s music in recent years is particularly evident in his orchestral music. I’ve listened to Adam’s Lament in Istanbul and Stockholm and elsewhere, and we will record it, when the time and the performers are right. His writing for orchestra is now more differentiated, overtone-rich. The sound picture is more often bright and light, there is less block-like harmony and timbre.”

Those qualities are evident to a remarkable – maybe even uncharacteristic – extent in the Cantique des degrés, also for choir and orchestra, which Pärt composed for Prince Rainier of Monaco (at the personal invitation of Princess Caroline) in 1999 which is only now receiving a first recording, coupled to the Third symphony and Stabat Mater on Sony. Kristjan Järvi agrees that the title isn’t all that’s French about the Cantique: “It doesn’t sound like one hundred per cent authentic Pärt. The harmony is a lot more complex, even neo-classical. It sounds like old music written today. And the mood is positive, it’s like the sun is out… For me it’s special piece, one of the most moving in his output.”

As a setting of Psalm 121 (”I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills”), the Cantique is ingeniously built up beneath a heptachordal key structure of rising minor thirds to reflect the origin of the text as a pilgrim’s song for the ascent of the steps to Jerusalem. With the score before us, part happily reflects on Montégasque times and people, turns the pages and is just putting pencil to paper for a plan in microcosm, when… ”No. Es lohnt sich nicht aus (it profits nothing to explain it).” OK. We sip some tea. He smiles apologetically.

Can he account for the increasing richness of his music? “A man grows older, maybe slower, not so healthy, but in some way his heart changes.” I guess Beethoven might have said something similar. His late works superficially take less and less notice of performers’ limitations, while aspiring towards a more fluid, vocal expression; the bar-lines start disappearing. To do him credit, Pärt would hate the comparison. He agrees that his transitions are freer than before, but: “My symphony is abstract? No. Music is singing. You should sing this symphony, if you had people with extreme ranges – maybe you should borrow some angels for the high notes!”

All four men – Eicher, Salonen, Järvi and the composer himself – agree that if not angels, then unusually dedicated performers are needed, and to a degree that makes me wonder how well the music will survive once the chosen ones have left us (Stockhausen had the same problem). According to Eicher, “Perhaps only a handful of people can perform the music successfully. You have to find the secret hidden within. Other composers give more detailed information in the score. It’s a matter of pulsation; you have to find the pulse behind each piece.”

Salonen gets down to brass tacks. “You have to take care of every note. Compare his music to a piece by, say, Xenakis, Birtwistle or Boulez, where you can miss a bunch of notes and you’re still in business. With part you miss one and it’s a disaster. It’s a completely different approach, for both performers and listeners. You have to take everything in, including the pauses and the silences.” Silence is an apt point of arrival when discussing a composer who, throughout his life, has pursued periods of self-imposed contemplative and creative quiet. As Kristjan Järvi remarks of the Stabat Mater, “You don’t want to listen to anything else afterwards.”

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