Into silence: Arvo Pärt's distinctive soundworld casts a spell

Arvo Pärt with Tõnu Kaljuste, the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and Tallinn Chamber Orchestra © Luciano Rossetti

Arvo Pärt with Tõnu Kaljuste, the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and Tallinn Chamber Orchestra
© Luciano Rossetti

I have to admit that as someone for whom a little Pärt can sometimes go a long way, I had my doubts as to how a whole concert of his music could work: two hours of contemplative slowness and predominantly minor keys. And one could quibble with a billed “Portrait concert” that only reflected one side of the composer’s musical character, even if it was the one with which most of his audience is au fait. (His pre-tintinnabulation music is worth an airing if only as a reminder of what he was rebelling against when he went all mystic-minimalist in the 70s.) Yet reservations were swept away as the music took hold.

Kaljuste and his orchestra began on familiar ground with two of Pärt’s most-performed instrumental works. The much-arranged Fratres was played in its version for solo violin, percussion and strings, with the TCO’s leader Harry Traksman as the niftily arpeggiating soloist and with a percussionist cleverly playing both bass drum and a pair of claves with just two hands. The piece worked its usual magic and set the mood for the rest of the evening. The simplicity at the heart of Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten – just downward A minor scales and a single tolling bell – was belied in a performance that brought out the funereal, as the tone became deeper and richer and the scales felt as if they were being pulled down by their own tragic weight.

The mood hardly lightened with the entrance of the chorus for two works setting plaintive texts: Adam’s Lament and Stabat mater. The former had moments of drama breaking up its sombre tread, while the mourning tone of the latter, coloured both by a slightly saccharine role for the celesta and by shades of Mozart in harmonies and a triple-time motion that recall the Lachrymosa of the Austrian composer’s Requiem, cast its own spell, especially given the pristine ensemble and chording from the esteemed choir and rich timbres from the TCO strings.

With Pärt’s Te Deum one might have expected a lightening of mood, yet even when setting a hymn of praise – a text that inspired composers such as Berlioz and Bruckner to some of their most unbridled writing – the Estonian holds himself back to a less effusive tone, even if the division of his choral forces into three suggests something more expansive. Indeed, the abiding effect of this work coloured by prepared piano, recorded wind harp and strings is of the blissful repetitions of “Sanctus” (holy), finally in a consoling major mode, with which the music, like so much in Pärt, fades away into silence.

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