Arvo Part, Musica SelectaThis meditative and quietly transcendent release is a landmark recording to celebrate this significant composer’s 80th birthday.

Label: ECM
Time: 19 tracks / 141 mins

Arvo Pärt must one of the top few most influential modern classical composers and this collection has been compiled to celebrate his 80th birthday.

Although missing the classic “Spiegel im Spiegel,” Musica Selecta would undoubtedly overlap with a greatest hits volume (“Fratres,” played by pianist Keith Jarrett alongside violinist Gideon Kramer, and “Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten” would form its bedrock) but this is more of a singular celebration. Producer Manfred Eicher refers to it as a “personal... sequence. Each episode offers an insight into our shared journey.”

And this has been a shared journey. Eicher founded ECM back in 1969, primarily as a jazz label, but in 1984 he added the ECM New Series to feature modern Western classical works, but specifically as a platform for Pärt’s music. The first album was Tabula Rasa, from which the two aforementioned tracks were taken. Ever since then, all first recordings of his major works have been made for ECM, with the Estonian composer present.

The relationship has surely endured because of what Eicher brings to Pärt’s music. As a sound engineer with a love of minimalism, his ear is particularly attuned to subtleties of balance, tone and flow. Given ECM’s strapline, “the most beautiful sound next to silence,” Pärt’s emphasis on tone, clarity and carefully-placed space finds a natural home under his care.

Once the introductory “Es Sang vor Langen Jahren” has lit the way, “Für Alina” shows exactly why so many love Pärt’s music. Lone pianist Alexander Malter plays such a minimalist, feather-light piece that it can only relax the listener. When the last notes of the collection die away, after the sublime “Da Pacem Domine,” the same quietude remains.

However, Pärt’s music can occasionally sound intense. Translated ‘My Way,’ the climax to “Mein Weg” shares a drivenness with its famous namesake – but even then, rather than build to a crashing or feverish passage, it does so in a gradual and uncomplicated manner that grows increasingly dense with sound.

Stripped back – although not as simple as they appear to the listener – these silky smooth works often have few players. The previously unreleased “Holy Mother of God” is performed here by just the quartet of the Hilliard Ensemble; “Magnificat” is just the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir; the 24-minute “Stabat Mater” by three vocalists and three strings players; and as mentioned, “Fur Alina” is just solo piano.

Even when a whole orchestra is involved, or as for “Beatus Petronius,” two choirs, eight woodwind instruments, tubular bells and string orchestra, the sound is still pure and clean. Choirs sing, somewhat back in the mix, as if a singular instrument, keeping a mood of quiet calm. Wagner this is not.

As the track names make clear, Pärt’s Orthodox faith is also integral to the work. When Estonia was still part of the Soviet Union, the communist authorities considered the Christian foundation of his music to be politically provocative, so it could not get a hearing in his homeland.

Now he is played both at home and across the world, and this compilation flows serenely across two discs as a superb introduction to his meditative and quietly transcendent work.

Derek Walker

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