PRINCETON – I’ve wanted to hear violinist Gidon Kremer perform Estonian composer Arvo Pärt’s iconic work Fratres live since I was a teenager. Back then, Kremer’s rendition of the work on an ECM Records New Series CD was transfixing and game changing: it became an almost totemic art object for me as a composition student. On February 3rd, I got my wish at McCarter Theatre in Princeton. Unlike the recording, here Kremer pushed the proceedings forward, taking a quicker tempo and engaging in more taut phrasing than he did on the CD. The work is still transfixing, but it was moving to hear its story retold in a new way.
Kremer and Kremerata Baltica, the chamber orchestra of Eastern European musicians that he leads, have a new ECM CD out, this one of the Chamber Symphonies of Mieczysław Weinberg, late works that sit astride Mahlerian late Romanticism and modernism that is a close cousin to the works of Shostakovich. Clarinetist Mate Bekavac, who also appears on the recording, was a sterling-toned soloist, unwinding breathless phrases and coordinating and blending seamlessly with the strings.
The second half of the concert had an interested concept that provided a bit of dramatic flair. Kremer began it with Tchaikovsky’s Serenade Melancolique, leaving the stage on the last note, which led directly into Kremerata Baltica’s rendition of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. This was resolutely played, but the absence of brass and winds led to some strangely attenuated passages (Andrei Pushkarev, a percussionist, performed formidable gymnastics to reach all of the score’s instruments). At the piece’s conclusion, Kremer returned to the stage, playing Valentin Silvestrov’s solo Serenade nearly attacca.
There were yet more surprises to come. Two encores, Stankovich’sLullaby and Alfred Schnittke’sPolka gave the audience distinct flavors of music-making – one poignant and one buoyant – to send them home.
This is Kremer’s seventieth birthday year. To celebrate, he has not only released the Weinberg disc on ECM, but has also recorded Rachmaninov’s Piano Trios and the Philip Glass’s Violin Concerto (available on vinyl!) for DG.
This collection of choral music by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt celebrates his eightieth birthday. It is programmed to emphasize his interpretations of Marian texts such as the Magnificat, Nunc Dimittis, and O Antiphons, all of which are central to his choral output. It also includes an excerpt from the totemic Kanon Pokajanen, his largest choral work, as well as shorter excerpts such as The Deer’s Cry and I am the True Vine. (The latter is particularly beautifully performed.)
Aquarius, a group of twenty-four voices, seems “right-sized” for these works, with enough voices to provide the requisite heft and majesty where necessary while still being able to create diaphanous pianissimo passages elsewhere. Conductor Marc Michael De Smet does an exquisite job of shaping phrases, balancing chords, and, a very important consideration in the performance of Pärt, pacing the proceedings. I will be on the lookout for their complete recording of Kanon Pokajanen.
On Saturday December 5th at New York’s Church of St. Mary the Virgin, the Tallis Scholars, directed by Peter Phillips, presented a program that included two composers firmly ensconced in their wheelhouse. Sacris Solemniis and Gaude, Gaude, Gaude by John Sheppard (c. 1515-1558), with long held chant notes offset by passages of sumptuous counterpoint and spare plainsong, provided context and set the stage for the later Renaissance work on the program, Thomas Tallis’sMissa Puer Natus Est Nobis. This piece is also filled with the intricate polyphony, but it makes use of what was by then an archaic device – long held notes in the tenor voice. At St. Mary’s, the piece felt jubilant, bustling with busy passage work and corruscated with counter-melodies.
The concert also featured music by a composer active more recently, the Estonian Arvo Pärt, who turned eighty this past year. These newer works were given incandescent performances. In contrast to the Tallis mass’s busy textures, Pärt’s O Antiphons epitomized clarity of line. The upper voices soared in his Magnificat.I am the True Vine featured delicate and touching harmonies, rendered by the Tallis Scholars with impressively pure diction. Indeed, while one hesitates to downplay the Renaissance portion of this thoughtful and well-balanced program, it was the Pärt that stole the show.
For over thirty years, producer Manfred Eicher has been one of the greatest champions of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. Indeed, the very first ECM New Series release was Pärt’s Tabula Rasa. It seems only fitting that Eicher and ECM would celebrate the composer’s eightieth birthday in handsome fashion. With Musica Selecta, a double-CD retrospective, they certainly have done so.
Called “A Sequence” by Manfred Eicher, it includes seminal early pieces such as Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten and Für Alina as well as more recent ones such as Alleluia-Tropus and Da Pacem Domine. Performers often associated with Pärt’s work – conductors Dennis Russell Davies and Tõnu Kaljuste and groups the Hilliard Ensemble, the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, and the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra – are represented. It goes without saying that, with such an embarrassment of riches from which to choose, the performances are all exemplary: some iconic. While this serves as an excellent starter kit for those previously unacquainted with Pärt’s music, even those who have some of the New Music CDs would still benefit from hearing Eicher’s sequencing. It is thoughtful and musical: compositional in scope and sympathy. Recommended.