During the interval at last night’s magnificent Arvo Pärt concert at the Bridgewater Hall I sneaked a look at the latest news on my phone. At the Brussels eurozone summit, Greece was being forced to accept financial colonialism in terms as humiliating as those imposed on Germany at Versailles in 1919.

Back in the concert hall, the programme of Pärt’s sublime music continued with his impassioned work for orchestra and solo soprano, Como cierva Sedienta. With its declamatory choruses, it seemed to speak to the ugly mood in Brussels:

Judge me, O God, and plead my cause against an ungodly nation: O deliver me from the deceitful and unjust man.

Why hast thou forgotten me? Why go I in mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?

My sense that the music somehow echoed the confrontation in Brussels perhaps offers a partial explanation for the enormous popularity of Pärt’s music in a secular world, drenched as it is in spirituality and the symbols and musical forms of religious faith. A great deal of his work is music of suffering – ‘the voice of one crying out’ – but also of love and redemption.  Steve Reich has spoken of his fellow-composer as being ‘completely out of step with the zeitgeist:

And yet he’s enormously popular, which is so inspiring. His music fulfils a deep human need that has nothing to do with fashion.

Or, as Immo Mihkelson wrote in an online appreciation:

People often wonder why Pärt’s music communicates with people regardless of their religious confession or the lack of it, regardless of age or ethnicity. Perhaps he has been able to translate something very human into sound that crosses the borders normally separating people.

Arvo Part
Arvo Pärt

For himself, Pärt told the New York Times in 2014 that, although his music reflects values which are important to him:

I am not taking the task in my music to discuss some religious or special Orthodox values. I am trying to reflect the values in my music that could touch every individual, every person.

Or, as he told the Telegraph in the same year:

Music says what I need to say. And it is dangerous to say anything, because if I’ve said it already in words there might be nothing left for my music.

This concert – a centrepiece of the 2015 Manchester International Festival – offered five varied examples of Arvo Pärt’s work, including perhaps his best-known composition, Fratres, and the UK première of a work which I’d already heard performed at the Richter/Pärt show two days previously at the Whitworth Gallery.

Vox Clamantis with Arvo Part
Vox Clamantis with Arvo Pärt

It was Vox Clamantis, the vocal ensemble from Estonia that had performed at the Whitworth which opened the concert with the formal British  première of Drei Hirtenkinder aus Fátima, the new piece they had been singing repeatedly in the gallery over the previous few days. There, the men and women of the group had been dressed informally as they mingled with gallery-goers; here, they appeared on stage in severe black outfits, buttoned to the neck as if dressed for a funeral march. The piece they sang, however, is far from funereal in mood.

It’s a short piece, written by Pärt after he had been invited to visit Fatima in Portugal, a town which had a special significance for the composer as the place where, in 1917, three young shepherd children saw a vision of the Virgin Mary appear to them in a field making prophecies, including one that predicted a second World War. For his composition, Pärt has taken just one line words from Psalm 8: ‘Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings hast Thou ordained strength’. Though the piece reflects a foreboding of coming terrible events, its tone is joyous, as the choir sing just four alleluias and the line from Psalm 8.

Manchester Camerata with Gabor Takacs-Nagy
Manchester Camerata with Gabor Takacs-Nagy

The choir were replaced on stage by the celebrated string orchestra Manchester Camerata who performed Fratres, perhaps the defining composition of Pärt’s career. The title translating as ‘Brethren’, it is a minimalist piece that Pärt re-orchestrated in a series of different versions for numerous combinations of instruments between 1977 and 1991. In this version for string orchestra and percussion what stood out for me from variations I’ve heard on record was the percussive figure – six notes in two groups of three knocked on wood block and bass drum – that punctuated the piece, signalling the point at which a slight variation of the melody occurs. In the programme notes, Benjamin Skipp writes that:

It’s an austere work, ceremonial in tone, that serves to unite the orchestral players and the audience – the brethren of the title, perhaps – together in a musical ritual.

Certainly, hearing the repeated knockings that punctuate the cyclical music I imagined a procession – perhaps Christian or perhaps Pagan – in which one of the brethren would pause now and again pound the earth with his stave.

Stabat Mater (The sorrowful mother stood) is Pärt’s response to a 13th century Christian text, a vivid meditation on Mary standing at the foot of the cross during the crucifixion. dating back to the 1980s, it’s one of the works from that period which introduced his distinctive musical style, tintinnabuli (pealing bells): a slow and meditative tempo and a minimalist approach to both notation and performance. As in many of Pärt’s compositions, the music rises and falls from very quiet beginnings that demand concentration and silence – somewhat disrupted by the sounds of coughing, mobile phones, and things being dropped (there seems to be something about the acoustics of the Bridgewater that magnifies these irritations).

You don’t have to possess Christian faith to be moved by this music.  As Benjamin Skipp observes in his programme notes:

The subject of  the Stabat Mater is particularly interesting for its shared emphasis on humanity and spirituality.  Mary is presented as a woman very much gripped by the human agony of a mother forced to view the humiliation and suffering of her her only-begotten son, who is also the Christ.

After the interval, choir and orchestra returned to perform another very short piece, Da pacem Domine,  a setting of one verse from the Book of Common Prayer – ‘Give peace in our time, O Lord’.  Pärt’s setting was completed in 2006 and is one of the most minimalist examples of his work.

Perhaps it is this simplicity that lends sincerity to the desire, as needful today as it ever has been, for peace in our time.
Benjamin Skipp

Da pacem Domine performed by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir

The final piece in the evening’s concert was strikingly different in tone to what had gone before. In Como cierva Sedienta the orchestra was joined by the sopranos Polina Pasztirsak for a composition that is unusual in Pärt’s repertoire in having an enlarged orchestration – the strings were joined by brass, wind and percussion instruments and the rumbling timpani brought an ominous tone to music that was sometimes wild and almost discordant, with Pärt sometimes requiring the soprano to sing at the limit of her vocal range, ‘the exaltation almost at screaming pitch’ as Benjamin Skipp puts it.

Written between 1998 and 2002, the composition sets the words of Psalms 42 and 43 in Spanish:

Why art thou cast down, O my soul? And why art thou disquieted in me?

Judge me, O God, and plead my cause against an ungodly nation: O deliver me from the deceitful and unjust man.

Why hast thou forgotten me? Why go I in mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?

The composition is an accumulation of fragments, a variety of rhythmic patterns passed from one instrument to another like building blocks, while the soprano’s vocal line runs like a thread through the tapestry. After repeatedly edging forward to a climax and then retreating, the piece ends abruptly and surprisingly with the sounding of one small, understated note.

Gabor Takacs-Nagy, Manchester Camerata’s Musical Director bowed to thunderous applause before Polina Pasztirsak gestured to Arvo Pärt himself to join the performers on stage for a standing ovation that went on so long that Pärt finally gestured his need for sleep and brought it to a close.

This memorable concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3, and is available on the iPlayer here for another 29 days.

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