Arvo Pärt’s compositions are the most performed of any living composer in the world, but his music grows seemingly from the very birth of music itself. Drawing on deeply spiritual and contemplative themes, his Gregorian chant-inspired vocal and string repertoire transcends the present tense and has not only won him the highest of accolades from the most educated of music listeners, it has also touched a vast, perhaps less-discerning audience searching for serenity and purity, found in his accessible musical vocabulary.
Performed tonight by the Manchester Camerata under the direction of Gábor Takács-Nagy, alongside long-time Pärt collaborators Vox Clamantis, an Estonian choir, the eloquently selected programme is allowed to resonate and shine in the presence of Pärt himself. ‘Drei Hirtenkinder aus Fátima’ is a new composition dedicated to MIF collaborator Gerhard Richter. This short vocal piece is inspired by a visit to Fatima in Portugal, the site of a Marian apparition of the Virgin Mary in 1917, in which she is said to have appeared to three shepherd children and prophesied the Second World War. However, Pärt focuses on the light and joy of the children, relayed by the eloquent, bouncing “hallelujahs”.
‘Fratres’, translated as ‘brothers’, follows a repeated six-bar string theme with an unerring flow, countered by a striking percussive interlude on claves and bass drum, both directly cutting and billowing at once. Opening with a sublime stillness and a grounded bass drone, the piece hesitantly repeats, growing into itself, reaching grandeur of strings in full flow before retreating back into its subdued self.
Pärt’s ‘Stabat Mater’, a medieval poem based on the sufferings of Mary, Jesus’ mother, during his crucifixion, seems only too perfect a subject for his music. The serene start develops into an almost conversational interplay between the strings and choir before bursts of frantic and expansive energy portraying her intense pain disappear as soon as they’ve developed. This, along with most of this evening’s events, are seemingly relentlessly disrupted by sporadic coughing from the audience as if the plague has fallen upon Manchester, perhaps nervous interruptions from an audience not used to such extensive stillness and reflection. The death of this drawn-out sorrowful suffering (Mary, not the coughing) is preceded by what could be considered two last gasps for breath, for which the audience can only withhold theirs, before the final chord slips away into silence.
‘Da Pacem Domine’, written in memory of the 2004 Madrid bombing victims, is a prayer for peace and is now performed annually in Spain. Setting text from a sixth century hymn, its almost plea-like nature is accentuated through the withheld melodic progression.
To close, ‘Como Cierva Sedienta’, featuring soprano soloist Polina Pasztircsák and a full orchestra, offers a setting of Psalms 42 and 43 in Spanish. Its exploratory nature is in great contrast to much of tonight’s programme, flitting between frantic woodwind flurries, brass fanfare and Stravinsky-esque modernist dissonance. But it does retain some of the serene moments that we are used to hearing from Pärt, and like each of his pieces, without doubt, every note matters. Each has been carefully considered by Pärt and the performers have no choice but to follow suit. Don’t be fooled by the apparent simplicity of his music, the concentration and detailed execution required from each performer in creating such tonal, textural and sonorous eloquence cannot be underestimated. Perhaps it’s this which aids the seemingly infinite power of his music. His ability to create such seemingly simple soundscapes through complex fundamental historic compositional techniques, often foregoing generations of music history, allows Pärt to transport the listener to a place of deep spiritual contemplation and that much closer to purity.