At its best the music of Arvo Pärt emanates a near hallucinatory allure. It is not often that the BBC’s “Total Immersion” days, in which a single composer becomes the focus of attention over a series of concerts, is sold out with a queue for returns, but that is testament to Pärt’s wide appeal.
His popularity rests primarily on a group of works from the mid-1970s. At this point the Estonian Pärt had gone back to medieval plainchant and found there the inspiration for a style of the utmost simplicity, the Pärt we now know and recognise – but what came before that is largely unfamiliar in the UK.
The point of “Total Immersion” is that it fills in some of the gaps in a composer’s career. To represent Pärt’s early years the BBC chose two symphonies – the Symphony No.1 from 1963-4 showing how the young Pärt could take German disciplines such as the fugue or serialism and still sound a composer of the far north, second cousin to Shostakovich; and the Symphony No.3, dating from the transitional period around 1971, when he had discovered Gregorian chant, but did not know how to make use of it, other than cooking up a symphonic dog’s dinner.
After the interval came two mature works. The Berliner Messe of the early 1990s is Pärt at his most ethereal. A choir, accompanied by isolated phrases from a string orchestra, sings the standard texts of the Latin Mass, extended by a couple of Alleluias and an otherworldly setting of the “Veni sancte Spiritus”, in clear and simple music that creates an aura of spiritual grace. Its clean-cut lines, reminiscent of Stravinsky, would have made a greater impact if the BBC Symphony Chorus had not sounded so tentative.
Among those central pieces from the mid-1970s, Tabula Rasa stands out for its scale and concentration. A double concerto for two violins, string orchestra and a piano prepared to sound like distant bells, it translates mystical Pärt into the purely instrumental arena. Although this performance by Alina Ibragimova and Barnabás Kelemen, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Tönu Kaljuste, was not the most precise, Tabula Rasa deserved its place as the high point of the evening.