Arvo Pärt states that his “Lamentate,” which takes up the majority of this relatively brief CD, was inspired by Anish Kapoor’s massive steel-and-PVC sculpture “Marsyas.” In his words: “I have written a lamento—not for the dead, but for the living, who have to deal with [death and suffering] for themselves.” Without question, Pärt’s dedication to finding new ways to express himself musically—even at 70 years old—is impressive and endearing. Unfortunately, like the actual Marsyas of legend, Pärt may have bitten off more than he could chew this time around.
Composed in 2002, “Lamentate” is, despite Pärt’s avowal to the contrary, a pretty textbook example of a minimalist piano concerto—only with hi-falutin’ Latin names for the individual movements. Unlike more traditional concertos, this piece lacks any concrete anchor or focus, even on the piano as a helm instrument. Instead, it drifts oddly between ethereal and blaring, pianissimo solo sections juxtaposed against blatant, Mahler-esque trumpet calls. Thankfully, it never quite devolves into atonal, but the harmonies and chord progressions are decidedly on the avant-garde side, and the mood can be hard to follow. With such a weighty subject matter, and enough dynamic jumping around to make House of Pain jealous, one wonders if Pärt had been hoping to channel Messiaen’s “Quartet For The End Of Time.” If so, he failed. Alternatively, some of the movements seem to be pretty clear references to (or, if you prefer, rehashes of) Pärt’s own 1968 work “Credo.” Whatever the underlying thought process, the result is a piece that feels schizophrenic and, ultimately, unsatisfying.
As you might expect from the weak source material, none of the players are ever really stretched or challenged by the “Lamentate.” Still, Lubimov is his usual, impressive self, and the SWR Stuttgart boys come across with a clear, full sound. There’s just not all that much for them to do. On a positive note, the much shorter lead-off work, “Da Pacem Domine,” is a surprising gem of an ecclesiastical piece. Sung a capella by the co-ed Hilliard Ensemble, “Da Pacem Domine” should be lodged solidly among the cream of Pärt’s “tintinnabular” works. For those of you unfamiliar with this term: Pärt, after suffering a “musical crisis” when he finally realized the utter idiocy of 12-tone, decided that he could no longer stick with the prevailing trend of modern classical music. Instead, he chose to go back to basics. Making an extensive study of plainsong, Gregorian chant, and the musical traditions of the Eastern Orthodox Church, Pärt developed a new style of composition that he termed tintinnabular, as he felt it evoked the ringing of bells. “Da Pacem Domine” demonstrates, aside from this tintinnabular style, Pärt’s facility with early music, mixing Renaissance techniques (e.g., organum) with modern modal harmonies and a sense of perpetual, lilting motion. The result is a tranquil and calming motet that features all the religious honesty of a period composition.
In the end, though, it’s not worth shelling out 15 bucks for “Da Pacem Domine,” only to get stuck with the “Lamentate.” If you’ve absolutely, positively got to own everything Pärt wrote, I suppose you’d better buy this album. But if you’re just interested in getting to know Pärt’s work (or modern classical music in general), pick up the recently released tribute CD (on Harmonia Mundi) instead.