Arvo Part
ECM New Series (

After five consecutive albums dominated by devotional works, many of them choral, ECM producer Manfred Eicher and Estonian-born composer Arvo Part have turned back the clock to the mid/late 70s, to the nascent strains of instrumental tintinnabuli-style. The slew of related works that has flowed uninterrupted since from the initiators of the New Series has inspired a phenomenon of international listenership. Yet, despite his deep abiding faith in the Russian Orthodox church, Arvo Part's instrumental writing quite possibly has the farthest and mightiest reach among the host of idioms he commands. It is on Alina, as it was on the seminal Tabula Rasa (1985), where the sound is clearly without denomination, that the listener encounters the purist metaphors of being human.

Numerous technical particulars are disclosed in Herman Conen's accompanying essay to explain Arvo Part's now highly visible stature. But beyond rigorous discussions of how these five, typically ten-minute long, interpretations of a pair of scores work, there is the stark fact of skeletal melodies. Spiegel Im Spiegel (1978) for piano and violin (or violincello), and Fur Alina (1976) for solo piano, require the deepest most sympathetic ear for any extra-musical reward to be possible from such spare music. They need, not to be talked about, but heard; not just to be believed, but felt.

A critic might say that Alina sounds like penitential Erik Satie or an especially morose George Winston on Sunday. Regardless, in the slow movement and shifting of space-clothed notes which ring like bells, there is a private refuge that I am certain Mr. Part was required to create for himself and into which others may also now retreat. Examination and reflection become all but inescapable in the face of such distilled sounds and silence.

In "Spiegel Im Spiegel," the rising major key and descending minor key scale melodies reflect the sounds of contemplated experience whose residual or stored emotion may follow. Lingual transcriptions of this mood might include: "All the pain and yet we, cheerfully, even with tears still in our eyes, go on." Or "Healing is possible, mercy be, yet the past cannot be altogether erased", or perhaps "We learn to walk again after the fall, with guidance, measured step by measured step." Here the piano has the revealing company of violin/cello. Three readings are present, the center track with the deeper, woodier cello, splits the set into symmetrical halves.

The crucial flipside of the comforting "Mirror in Mirror" is the fear-tinged uncertainty of the entirely minor-keyed Fur Alina. Two versions appear between the three of 'Spiegel'. Its space is, in contrast, dark, searching, lonely and unbounded. We know too its discord, doubt, recrimination; the tentative zone that precedes the plea for mercy, or follows the sin. There is also an aspect of the post-mortem meditative, as though looking with solemn humility upon a soul who died with his unchangeable habits.

In all, both sides: light and dark, alone and not, testament and witness, are balanced here in the most practical and concentrated of spiritual elements. No wonder this particular recording enters into public record after so many other works focused exclusively on the Christ and Russian Orthodox agony.

The case is made poignantly by a quartet of precise interpreters: Vladimir Spivakov (violin), Sergej Bezrodny (piano), Dietmar Schwalke (violincello) and Alexander Malter (piano). Without their own irreproducible sense of time and meticulously idiosyncratic execution, in the moment, and in proximity to these microphones, the two works may not have come up so affecting. Noteworthy too that such lovingly rendered, companionable music issues here from a circle of males.

Herman Conen's otherwise excellent liner notes tend to reduce the magic of Arvo Part's tintinnabuli style music to matters of performance skill and structure. Crucial as they are, the primary engine that created Part's popularity has been listeners in need, fortunate enough to receive the brief but beneficent balm of a personal music. However demanding it is to perform, this isn't music about mercy, nor is it to be mistaken for merely an exquisite simulation bereft of any real expression whatsoever. Part, the man, has a pulse on human anguish like few other artists I've ever known. His music is mercy. - Steve Taylor

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