Over recent years the Barbican’s ‘Total Immersion’ series has successfully examined the works and lives of many key contemporary composers from the likes of John Adams and Iannis Xenakis to Wolfgang Rihm and Brian Ferneyhough. Perhaps the most conspicuous omission to date has been that of Arvo Pärt. With a popularity rarely attained by living composers, his music has transcended the usual limitations of the genre, reaching out to audiences in fresh ways (especially over the last decade).
It was an appropriate choice in several ways, not least in that his music (especially the quietly contemplative works of his later period) positively invites immersion. It was equally apt from a historical perspective — his background and development as a composer does occasionally get lost in the success he has enjoyed in recent times. To know Pärt based exclusively on these achievements is to overlook many absorbing earlier works and also miss out on his interesting personal story.
By way of illustration, during the introductory talk by BBC Radio 3 presenter Sara Mohr-Pietsch, a photograph of the Estonian composer was projected on to the screen of the Barbican Silk Street Theatre. Dating from the 1960s, it showed him wearing a facemask, burning a violin. It was a striking image and a powerful reminder that his music has not always consisted of the pristine chamber/choral works, and it reaffirmed that his formative years were guided by a forward-thinking radicalism and a desire to find his own personal musical language.
The first performance of the day took place in St. Giles’, Cripplegate and saw musicians from the Guildhall Consort play some of his key choral and chamber works. Magnificat was the first of sixteen pieces to be performed over the course of eleven hours, ensuring that the day started on a high, the voices of the ensemble projecting upwards throughout the church, creating a near celestial aura. The Deer’s Cry proved similar, conveying the impression of a glorious beacon of light filling the church.
Fur Alina and Spiegel im Spiegel, two of Pärt’s signature chamber pieces, followed. The former may only be two minutes long but it elicits an emotional response that belies its brevity, each note falling from the piano like the most delicate of snowdrops. Spiegel im Spiegel meanwhile was performed with its innocence and simplicity intact, the individual melodic strands of piano and violin combining to form a doleful lamentation. It felt significant that the moments of silence within each piece appeared to have been afforded equal importance to the actual music. The first instalment closed with Pärt’s version of Stabat mater, which saw vocal and chamber elements united in sombre, sobering fashion. Indeed, while his choral music has an illuminated beauty, this offered evidence of an exacting, almost ascetic interior (a view reinforced by the spartan venue and inclement weather outside).
Later, St. Giles’ was also the setting for the second concert which concentrated on Pärt’s works for organ and voices. It began with Trivium for solo organ, before the BBC Singers took to the stage to perform Seven Magnificat Antiphons, a series of short liturgical texts that sonically veered between astringent, channelled force and gentle, conciliatory polyphony. In comparison, The Beatitudes (featuring his first use of the English language) possessed an almost sumptuous serenity which flowed neatly into the calming, elevating beauty of Summa.
The showing of 24 Preludes for a Fugue, a documentary about Pärt made in 2002 by director Dorian Supin, separated the concerts and provided a helpful layer of context. It showed Pärt composing, playing, reminiscing about his childhood and talking about his music, revealing him to be funny, quirky and humble. This may have caused a slight dissipation of some of the mystery that surrounds him and his music but allowed his likeable personality to shine through, offering many moving moments. The frequent sight of him in a baseball cap also proved that Steve Reich doesn’t have a monopoly on composers wearing contemporary headgear.
The final concert saw the BBC Symphony Orchestra give rare performances of two of his early symphonies, under the guidance of fellow Estonian conductor Tõnu Kaljuste. Symphony No. 1 was propelled forth with real drive and energy by the BBCSO, the prominent brass opening giving way to period characterised by tightly-marshalled strings. It then underwent something of a slow retraction before finishing with a sparkling burst of momentum. Symphony No. 3 came later, a seamless interlinking of graceful, august strings and bold, regal brass and percussion. Silhouette, Pärt’s brief orchestral piece inspired by the Eiffel Tower appeared in between. The BBC Symphony Chorus joined the stage after the interval to perform the solemnly beautiful Berliner Messe. To close, violinists Alina Ibragimova and Barnabas Kelemen accompanied the orchestra for Tabula rasa. It was a powerful finale — the unsettled, anguished stylings of the first movement being followed by the soothing, unremittingly sad stillness of the second.
The fact that each of these concerts had long sold out offered hope that contemporary classical music may not necessarily be the closed-off, difficult avenue which some assume it is. Indeed, intensive events like this are arguably the ideal home for it, and where it truly comes alive. The programme may have omitted a few of his best known works — Fratres and Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten were not performed — but there could be no doubt that this was a special, insightful day.
Further details of Barbican concerts can be found at barbican.org.uk