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Arvo Pärt – Te Deum

On Spec 12: Arvo Pärt – Te Deum, Silouans Song, Magnificat, Berliner Messe

I bought this at the same time that I got (the absolutely AMAZING) Alina album, which I covered recently. When I reviewed Alina, Manipulant said I oughta check out this one too – I told him to stay tuned! And here it is.

This CD seems to have four parts (Pärts, natch 🙂 ), so here we go!



1) Te Deum

This is a 28:55 single track, mind you, which starts as a gorgeous, slow-building choral work, then the strings come in, low and teasing until the violins soar over top and the voices soar with them. The theme repeats as the music lifts you above the droning underneath, and every now and then it peels back layers to focus on the voices again, and just as many float aloong so beautifully that you’re swept away and aching to hear what comes next. So many parts here are stunning – the crescendo from 23:30-26:04, for example, is so powerful!

Now, I don’t understand Latin, but the Te Deum is an early Christian hymn of praise, still in regular use in the Catholic, Anglican and Methodist churches. If you wanna know more about its history and uses, GO HERE. There’s a ton more complicated, specific information about Pärt and his work on this one RIGHT HERE.

Me, I just drifted along with the beauty of the track, and it honestly doesn’t even need to be considered religious music. It’s powerful, beautiful classical music that lifts the soul. Apply religion as you see fit or not.

2) Silouans Song

This one has a stark, open beauty, drawing your ear along as it drifts in and out, pausing now and again but always coming back. Allmusic says that “Few composers shape their works according to their personal religious philosophy as deeply and poignantly as Arvo Pärt does, and within his oeuvre, few pieces can be found that carry as heavy a spiritual weight as Silouan’s Song. Pärt’s treatment of religious topics is never a mere acknowledgment of a long-standing musical tradition, or an objective experiment within a church-derived musical form. The intensity of a work such as Silouan’s Song is not a musical construction, but a very personal expression of faith.”

Knowing this, as a statement of faith and intent, this is doubly powerful. Like Te Deum, it needn’t be tied to religion, in my mind, but if the composer meant it as such, I can see how it applies. The quote goes on… “As in other works of this kind (the Magnificat, Te Deum), the combination of elements suggests numerous allegories: the willing spirit vs. the weak flesh, or perhaps Christ’s mixed lineage of godhood and manhood. The work takes on the tone of a prayer. Settings of the unspoken text phrases are separated by ponderous pauses.” And further “Having delegated many of the compositional decisions to the tintinnabula process, Pärt concerns himself with minute but crucial details. Sudden shifts in range have striking effect, and within this extremely homogenous texture, the deliberate absence or presence of vibrato makes all the difference. Perhaps the most careful nuance is to be found before the penultimate phrase. The sudden fff pickup is preceded by a two beat silence, during which the performers are instructed to crescendo.

That’s what I was gonna say!

3) Magnificat

I’m gonna crib again, because this is more than I knew (and now you can know too!)… “Arvo Pärt‘s personal convictions, however, make any reading of his works, particularly his sacred music, a very personal exploration of the composer’s spirituality. Pärt’s Magnificat (for SSATB choir with soprano soloist), though not considered among the composer’s landmark works, nonetheless characterizes the composer’s religious devotion, and places the listener within a startlingly sensitive musical environment. Perhaps the personal nature of the piece can be partly attributed to the personal nature of the text: Mary’s prayer of gratitude at being chosen as the mother of Jesus. Pärt’s setting, built upon his trademark “tintinnabular” technique, is at once breathlessly serene and taut with anticipation.

I get more ‘breathlessly serene’ from this than I do the ‘taut with anticipation,’ but that could just be me. As I said, I don’t tend to apply religion to music, but this piece certainly sounds like church music. It’s beautiful, the voices are stunningly performed, and the use of dynamics is superb.

4) Berliner Messe

This piece is in eight parts: Kyrie, Gloria, Erster Alleluiavers, Zweiter Alleluiavers, Veni Sancte Spiritus, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei. And since I’ve been quoting, here’s some more: “Estonian composer Arvo Pärt has always drawn attention (and occasionally criticism) for the heavily religious content of his works, and even a preliminary sampling of his Berliner Messe testifies to the depth of the composer’s spiritual sensibilities. The very compositional techniques he uses here can be read as religious symbols, and the care with which he applies them enhances the profound reverence that the work conveys.

Composed for the 1990 “German Catholic Days” and premiered in an ecclesiastical context, the Berliner Messe is a liturgically complete work. The inclusion of two Alleluias and the sequence “Veni Sancte Spiritus” identifies it as a mass for Pentecost, though the added sections are optional in concert or church settings. Its original incarnation was for four SATB* soloists and organ; after its premiere, the composer arranged it for strings and SATB choir.

*SATB = Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Bass

All of these tracks are beautifully performed, instruments and vocals. All of them are uplifting, and done with aplomb.

But I’m not gonna lie, by the time I got to this point, I was a little burnt out on the choral music. It’s all beautiful, but I just don’t get any spiritual zing out of this stuff and there’s only so much of the music I can do in one sitting, it seems. Fair play, this is magnificent work, but I wish I had done each of these four parts seperately, perhaps over four seperate days, instead of all in one sitting as I have here today.

In Sum: 

This is gorgeous stuff. It truly is, especially the Te Deum. I appreciate the minimalist approach of Pärt, and how his focus on specifics draws out the power in all the right places. Really, from a compositional point of view this is genius stuff, and I’m not one to toss the ‘g’ word around all that much.

Played loudly enough, this music could turn any larger space into a church sanctuary. If that’s your bag, this is your disc! But for me, today, as I said earlier, I probably needed to space out these four parts over several listening sessions. It became a little much for me, as much to do with my burning out on choral music as with how I still have the new Judas Priest album in my head…

Of the four here, in my assessment today, though, I would give full marks to the Te Deum. The rest I may not visit as often.

Arvo Pärt – Alina

On Spec 11: Arvo Pärt – Alina

Bought on a whim, because I first heard of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt through our friend Michael in Saskatoon fifteen years ago. He raved about the man’s work, which is described as minimalist and uses a self-created compositional technique he calls tintinnabuli.

On a cool side note, Wiki says “Since 2010 Pärt has been the most performed living composer in the world.”

I will get to what this music did to me in a moment, but first, and this is incredibly lazy of me, but it’s already been said best by others..

Arvo P„ärt’s Alina follows a simple-enough formula. Two stark instrumental works from the master of holy minimalism repeat each other, each time slightly different. But the blissful results–quiet, haunting, and thoroughly hypnotizing–meld to create one of classical music’s best albums of 2000. It’s as intense and sublime as contemporary classical music can be. – Amazon

This is a remarkable release, both for its beauty and its novelty at programming. Für Alina is a two-minute solo piano piece composed by Pärt in l976 that ushered in his “tintinnabuli” style, that is, the bell-like, simple, no-notes-wasted method for which he has become beloved and famous. On this CD, pianist Alexander Malter plays it twice, as the second and fourth tracks; each iteration takes almost 11 minutes (Pärt assumed it would be embellished, and he chose this pair for the CD). There are minute variations in tempo, emphasis, and rubato from one to the other, but, all that being said, it amounts to 22 minutes of the most beautiful, contemplative music ever performed. Almost equally gentle is Spiegel im Spiegel , played as tracks 1, 3 and 5 and scored for piano and, respectively, violin, cello, and then violin again. The notes the instruments mirror one another (Spiegel is German for mirror), with notes added to the scale with each repetition, and so on. Almost impossible to describe in its loveliness, each of the three sets is beautiful; the cello in track 3 gives it extra mellowness. This is music staggering in its simple complexity and a treat for the ear and heart. –Robert Levine

‘Almost impossible to describe in its loveliness,’ indeed. I sat down with the good headphones, ready to apply what remains of my brain and review the shit out of this album, ready for anything… but I was left sitting here, disarmed and immobile, just letting the stark beauty of it all wash over me. It’s the sort of music that, in the quiet of a comfortable room on a rainy day, could render a listener tearful from beauty and joy. It’s so simple, elegant, peaceful. I was lifted, made at ease, and when it concluded I felt myself yearning to catch up with the tail end of it so it could go on and on…

I haven’t felt like this about an album in a long time. Through the good headphones you can hear shifting on the piano bench, breathing, the sound of the pedals being depressed… it’s like you’re right there in the room with them as they perform this…

I’ve gone a couple of days without posting because I kept returning to this album, and every time it floored me. Simply the best On Spec album of the series thus far, and possibly of the whole series, for however long it runs. Also one of the best albums I have heard in ages, full stop.

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