Monday 28 September 2020

Lamentate: Arvo Pärt's largest scale orchestral work recorded by Lithuanian forces in honour of the composer's 85th birthday

Arvo Pärt Lamentate, Fratres, Pari intervallo, Variationen zur Gesundung von Arinuschka, Vater unser; Onutė Gražinytė, Lithuanian National Symphony Orchestra, Modestas Pitrėnas; Accentus

Arvo Pärt Lamentate, Fratres, Pari intervallo, Variationen zur Gesundung von Arinuschka, Vater unser; Onutė Gražinytė, Lithuanian National Symphony Orchestra, Modestas Pitrėnas; Accentus
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 28 September 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
In celebration of Arvo Pärt's 85th birthday, a fine recording of his largest-scale orchestral work with Lithuanian forces

Sometimes particular works can define how we expect at composer to sound, so that having become familiar with part of a composer's output we almost become blind to other aspects. So our appreciation of the work of Arvo Pärt can rather be coloured by the concept of what might be termed holy minimalism, and the way that choral ensembles often perform his music. But, you only have to hear his works performed by the Estonian Chamber Choir (using quite a large group of singers, and with a strength and vigour to the performance), to appreciate that there are other aspects to Pärt's music. And whilst Pärt is best known for his choral writing, hearing him applying the same tintinnabuli technique to a large orchestra provides a fascinating contrast in style and scale.

Pärt has, of course, written four symphonies [see my review of the Wroclaw Philharmonic Orchestra's performance of all four on ECM], but the first three all pre-date Pärt's use of tintinnabuli technique, and the fourth (which dates from 2008) is written just for string orchestra, harp, timpani and percussion. His largest scale orchestra work is Lamentate written in 2002 and premiered by the London Sinfonietta, conductor Alexander Briger with pianist  Hélène Grimaud, in the Turbine Hall of Tate Modern, underneath the huge Marsyas sculpture by Anish Kapoor, and Lamentate is subtitled, 'Homage to Anish Kapoor and his sculpture Marsyas for piano and orchestra'.

On this new disc from Accentus, Modestas Pitrėnas conducts the Lithuanian National Symphony Orchestra in Arvo Pärt's Lamentate with pianist Onutė Gražinytė, along with a selection of shorter works for piano, instrument and voice including Fratres with cellist Edward King, Pari intervallo, Variationen zur Gesundung von Arinuschka and Vater unser. The recording was made in celebration Arvo Pärt's 85th birthday.

Lamentate was Pärt's reaction to Marsyas. He talks about seeing the sculpture for the first time, in October 2002, 'Suddenly, I found myself put into a position in which my life appeared in a different light. At the moment, I had a strong feeling that I was not ready to die' and he goes on to say that 'Death and suffering are questions that preoccupy every person born into the world ... Accordingly, I have written a Lamento, not for the dead, but for the living who have a hard time dealing with the suffering in the world'. [You can read more of Pärt's commentary on the work at the Universal Edition website]

The work is scored for quite a classical orchestra, double woodwind, four horns, two trumpets, two trombones, timpani, and strings with just a large percussion section moving things into the contemporary. It is in ten sections, the longest seven minutes the shortest one minute. Whilst the work's title means Lament in Latin, it should be born in mind that it was commissioned for and premiered in the Turbine Hall of Tate Modern (under Marsyas) so its title can also be read as a pun, LamenTate.

Though the work is purely orchestral, a text runs through it. Pärt was inspired by Troparia (short hymns in Old Slavonic) and by the Dies Irae and the text was included in the score to make the logic of the phrasing visible to performers. Does this matter, do we need to know? Perhaps not?

Certainly, the work's opening is highly dramatic and if you listened to this cold then you would perhaps not immediately recognise it as Pärt, yet if you listen you hear the way the construction uses the tintinnabuli technique. But in a fashion which is writ larger and in a more dramatic fashion. Throughout, the work alternates two moods, the first highly dramatic (Pärt refers to it as 'brutal-overwhelming') and the second quieter, more intimate. You wonder about the effect of this music within the huge Turbine Hall, and no concert hall performance can hope to emulate that first performance.

The opening two movements are fearsome, six minutes which capture the immensity of scale and sense of unknowingness of the sculpture, but then it evaporates, and we are left with a quiet solo piano, notes sparingly used with Pärt's familiar understanding of the space between. Throughout the piece Pärt uses this sense of contrast, and Gražinytė brings a sense of quiet concentration to the solo piano passages.

The solo part is not really a virtuoso concerto part, instead Pärt uses the instrument as a sort of focus, perhaps a solo figure against the massive orchestra just as Anish Kapoor planned his work in conjunction with the scale of a human figure. Pianist Onutė Gražinytė brings devastating focus and clarity to the performance, whether in the more overwhelming moments or the intimate ones. Conductor Modestas Pitrėnas paces the work well and it has that sense of timelessness which Pärt was aiming at. I enjoyed the recording immensely, and now need to hear it live. And I am also kicking myself that I never heard one of the premiere performances at Tate Modern.

Onutė Gražinytė and cellist Edward King bring a similar sense of drama to the version of Pärt's Fratres for cello and piano. The work was composed in 1977, and is thus early in Pärt's adoption of his tintinnabuli. Originally conceived without any particular instrumentation, it is best known in the violin and piano version created for violinist Gidon Kremer. Here, performing a version for cello and piano created by cellist Dietmar Schwalke in 1989, Gražinytė and King make a work which can often sound soothing into something rather more unsettling, with a wonderful sense of texture.

Gražinytė's selection of solo piano works moves widely over Pärt's catalogue, Für Anna Maria: Nachdenklich (2008), Für Alina (1976), Pari intervallo (1976),  Variationen zur Gesundung von Arinuschka (1977), Für Anna Maria: Frolich (2008) and Vater Unser (2005) with Gražinytė providing the soprano solo too. One linking thread running through this selection is that many of the works were written for particular people and times, so that Gražinytė knows the mother of the dedicatee of Für Alina (Alina was a young woman who had decided to leave the Soviet Union for England), the variations were dedicated to Pärt's daughter who was recovering from an operation, Pari Intervallo was inspired by Pärt's friends in the Estonian early music ensemble Hortus Musicus, which premiered the work in 1976. Vater Unser is dedicated Pope Benedict XVI and Pärt himself played the piano part at the premiere. Gražinytė brings a lovely clarity and purity to these pieces, understanding that less is more and that Pärt creates expressive miracles of complexity from sometimes apparently simple means.

Arvo Pärt: Lamentate - Onutė Gražinytė, Modestas Pitrėnas, Lithuanian National Symphony Orchestra (Photo Tadas Kazakevicius)
Arvo Pärt: Lamentate - Onutė Gražinytė, Modestas Pitrėnas, Lithuanian National Symphony Orchestra
(Photo Tadas Kazakevicius)

There are a number of recordings of Lamentate in the catalogue, including one from pianist Alexei Lubimov and the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra under Andrey Boreyko on ECM which is the works recording premiere, created for the composer's 70th birthday. That recording pairs Lamentate with Da Pacem Domine sung by the Hilliard Ensemble. This new disc makes a fine celebration of Pärt's 85th birthday, and also represents pianist Onutė Gražinytė's debut recording.

Arvo Pärt (born 1935) - Lamentate (2002)
Arvo Pärt -  Für Anna Maria: Nachdenklich (2006)
Arvo Pärt -  Für Alina (1978)
Arvo Pärt -  Fratres (1977/1989)
Arvo Pärt -  Pari intervallo (1976)
Arvo Pärt -  Variationen zur Gesundung von Arinuschka (1977)
Arvo Pärt -  Für Anna Maria: Frolich  (2008)
Arvo Pärt -  Vater Unser (2005)
Onutė Gražinytė (piano, soprano)
Edward King (cello)
Lithuanian National Symphony Orchestra
Modestas Pitrėnas (conductor)
Recorded Lithuanian National Culture Centre Recording Studio, April 2019; Lithuanian National Philharmonic Hall, May 2020

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