Arvo Pärt (hoods, mittens) and Manfred Eicher (knit cap) in their element.
A novelty in the mix is the five-minute Most Holy Mother of God (2003), performed a cappella in the King's English, a language that for no reason I can discover swallows Pärt's radiance like a black hole. For the rest, the anthology proceeds from wonder to wonder: 19 tracks in all; some purely vocal, some purely instrumental, some mixed; running times from just over one minute to close a half hour, for a total of close to two and a half hours of music.
In a stroke of singular grace, Eicher has chosen as the opening track the song "Es sang vor langen Jahren," set to an enigmatic lyric spun of heartache, moonbeams, and the call of the nightingale. Scored for alto, violin, and viola, the haunting vignette resembles nothing else by Pärt or any other composer I can think of, yet his voice comes through unmistakably. A more characteristic sample of his work would be the eight-minute Ode VI from his 80-minute Kanon Pokajanen, a mesmerizing chant of repentance sung a cappella in Old Church Slavonic.
On technical grounds, some critics place Pärt among the minimalists, and those among the moderns. Yet his language roots in the medievalism of the Orthodox church. Posterity may judge otherwise; by contemporary lights Pärt seems to transcend fashion, sounding neither ancient nor faux antique, but elemental, timeless, steeped eternity, poised on the cusp of the here and now.
"I could compare my music to white light which contains all colors," Pärt writes in a preface to Musica Selecta. "Only a prism can divide the colors and make them appear; this prism could be the spirit of the listener."
Possibly, but I think Pärt's spirit is the true prism—if, that is, one accepts his analogy in the first place. For his materials are not light only but also the very palpable immensities that light shines upon. In the chamber of my mind where all sensation is one, the tremolando for violin and viola that opens "Es sang vor langen Jahren" stings like sunbeams flashing off a ripple on an Arctic lake—whereas the voices of Kanon Pokajanen call forth resonances of mountain ranges in formation, from the chiming alpenglow of the sopranos clear down to the tectonic, rolling thunder of the basses near the core of the planet. Here a track stops time with its cystal serenity. There, one gyrates in tense perpetual motion. A third rocks fitfully on subliminal crosscurrents at odds beneath a glassy sea.
Until it came about, the creative partnership that Eicher forged with Pärt would have been hard to foresee. His stock in trade when Eicher founded ECM Records in his native Germany in 1969 was jazz of an incontrovertibly independent stripe. Then, in 1984, he discovered Pärt. And so he launched ECM New Series, dedicated to Western classical music chosen with his usual indifference to business as usual. Today, the New Series backlist ranges from Pérotin (esoteric 12th-century polyphonist of Notre Dame, in Paris), to contemporary or nearly contemporary Americans (John Cage, Steve Reich, John Adams), by way of the Daedalean Palestrina, the incendiary Gesualdo, and that mighty keeper of the fortress J.S. Bach.
Back to square one? For Eicher and Pärt, every recording is a new beginning.
Of course, Eicher has not had his court composer all to himself over the years. The current count of albums partially or entirely devoted to Pärt's music stands at several hundred—just twenty of them, give or take, are on ECM New Series. That handful, however, includes the premiere recordings of virtually all the major compositions, in performances closely superintended by the composer. No wonder then if critical consensus singles them out as the premier recordings, too, adding up to what some think of as a reference collection and some as a canon. Either term will do.
With each collaboration, it's been tabula rasa all over again for Eicher and Pärt, in the richest sense. Each time, they seek out a recording space uniquely suited to the specific candlepower of the score in question, as well as performers uniquely attuned to its textures, its soundscape, its distinctive ebb and flow. Alongside the marquee names like Gidon Kremer and Keith Jarrett, the honor roll includes the musicians' musicians Susan Bickley, Alexei Lubimov, and Thomas Demenga and a cadre of such loyalists as the Hilliard Ensemble and (primus inter pares) the Estonian conductor Tõnu Kaljuste, whose artistry and commitment have served Pärt as a continuing inspiration. Exemplary contributions from all of these and more make up Musica Selecta.
Less bullet-point summary than freeform mosaic, this birthday tribute follows a prismatic logic all its own. Whether as a crash course for the novice or a refresher for the aficionado, the playlist is exactly right.